Palmeiras were the first Brazilian club to reach the final of South America’s Copa Libertadores, while Santos were the first Brazilians to win it. On Saturday they meet in the 61st final, staged in front of no fans in Rio de Janeiro’s Maracana stadium.
Palmeiras are gunning for their second title. Santos aim to become the first Brazilian side to win the trophy for the fourth time, which would be an extraordinary achievement from a truly remarkable club.
The historical team of Italian immigrants, Palmeiras are one of the big three cubs from the sprawling metropolis of Sao Paulo, the largest city in South America and one of the biggest in the world. Santos is the much smaller nearby port, an hour down the hill if there is little traffic. It is a city of well under half a million people. And yet Santos have outperformed Corinthians, Palmeiras and Sao Paulo. It is as if Brighton had consistently done better in the Premier League than Arsenal, Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur and West Ham United.
Much of this, of course, has to do with Pele, but he did not do it alone. In 1956, the Brazil legend joined a club that had just won the Sao Paulo State Championship for the second time. Right from the start he was surrounded with great players, and plenty more kept coming throughout the 1960s to play alongside him. Through that decade, Santos had a clear claim to be considered the best club side in the world. They beat European champions Benfica and AC Milan after winning the Libertadores in 1962 and 1963. They fell short in the next two campaigns, and they gave up the competition — for obvious reasons.
In the days before TV rights, the Libertadores was a financial disaster — lots of costly journeys with little revenue. In order to pay Pele and his magnificent supporting cast, Santos did the economically rational thing. In breaks from competitive football in Brazil they travelled the globe in search of lucrative friendlies. And they were consistently the best team in Brazil at a time when the country could hold on to the wonderful footballers it produced.
Post Pele, Santos inevitably slipped back a little. But they have returned to prominence in the 21st century, and the Libertadores has played a huge role in their resurfacing of a club that was founded on the very day that the Titanic went down.
Santos have become specialists in youth development, and South America’s version of the Champions League has allowed successive generations of the club’s wonderkids to gain experience and put themselves in the shop window.
In 2002 an amazingly young side, spearheaded by Diego, Robinho and Elano, won the Brazilian Championship and went all the way to the final of the following year’s Libertadores. The Neymar generation claimed title number three in 2011, and seven years later they unleashed Rodrygo, now with Real Madrid.
In the current campaign they have gone with youth once more. They had no option as Santos are broke. The club president was recently impeached. Unpaid transfer fees meant that FIFA banned them from signing new players, so coach Cuca has had to work with what he has.
Fortunately, he can count on a fine centre-back partnership, though even here there have been headaches. Luan Peres is on loan from Bruges in Belgium. The loan was set to run out at the end of 2020, and had to be hurriedly renegotiated. And the excellent Lucas Verissimo had been promised a move abroad, and nearly did not feature in the semifinals. In the end agreement was reached, and he joins Benfica next week.
Up front, teenage centre-forward Kaio Jorge has been a revelation, thrown in at the deep end and operating with an intelligence and versatility that warrants comparison with Liverpool’s Roberto Firmino. Kaio Jorge can work the penalty area, with five goals he is the team’s top scorer in the campaign, but he can aso drop deep to mark or to slip through passes to the wingers — Marinho on the right, cutting in to unleash his fierce left-footed shots, and the tiny Venezuelan Yeferson Soteldo on the left, with his mesmerising dribbling skills. Soteldo can also play in a more central role, with the hard running Lucas Braga taking care of the flank.
But here Cuca has a decision to take. No one expected Santos to get this far, but they have built up confidence and momentum along the way.
They opened out with a series of victories, but all were hard fought, single goal affairs. Only twice have they won by a wider margin — at the business end against the big guns. In the home leg of the quarterfinal, they beat Gremio 4-1, and then overcame Boca Juniors 3-0 in the next round. Both times the midfield pressed aggressively, marking on the front foot, winning possession and breaking forward.
But will that be possible on Saturday? The previous rounds were in the evening. The final kicks off at 5 p.m. According to the original schedule, this game was supposed to have been staged in late November — in the spring. Instead, it now goes ahead in high summer. The first half is likely to be played in unrelenting sunshine.
Can Santos press in such conditions? They will run the risk of leaving themselves open to Palmeiras’ counter-attack specialists. Might it be prudent to go with a more cautious midfield? Because, as well as the heat, there are the effects of having so many matches crammed into the pandemic-affected calendar.
True, Palmeiras have played more games. This will be their 55th since late July. But Palmeiras have a much deeper squad, making it easier to rotate their options. Santos, then, need one more surge of heroism from the group of players who have carried them to unexpected heights.
They can take inspiration from the venue. Rio’s Maracana is the closest thing Brazil has to a national stadium. And back in the heyday of Pele, Santos were so popular that the Maracana became a second home. It was where they played Boca Juniors in the home leg of the final of the 1963 LIbertadores, and was also the stage for the inter-continental games against Benfica and Milan. Santos won all of those games — and would be the romantics’ choice to do it again against Palmeiras on Saturday.