Bring up Santos and two names are likely to be discussed- Neymar and Pele.
Two of Brazil’s greatest ever footballers graduated through Santos’ academy, which is widely regarded as one of the best youth setups in the world.
But in between the eras of Pele and Neymar sit a lesser-discussed yet equally impressive crop of players.
Santos won six Brazilian first division titles in eight years between 1961 and 1968, thanks mainly to the star power of Pele.
But when Pele drifted off into retirement the silverware dried out, aside from a regional title in 1997 and a Copa CONMEBOL title in 1998
Santos were no longer sitting at the top table among Brazil’s elite clubs.
Financial crisis with a silver lining
With Santos in dire straits financially heading into the 2002 season several high-profile players had to be sold to balance the books.
Rodrigao, who went to Saint-Etienne, and Brazilian international Dodo, who joined Botafogo were the biggest casualties.
Prolific striker Deivid also left the club, with Santos forced to watch him join Corinthians for absolutely nothing.
In their place came a crop of academy players who would revolutionise the club- Robinho, Diego and Alex, joining Renato, Elano and left-back Leo in Emerson Leao’s squad.
Scraping into the play-offs
Santos’ team relied on a spine of Alex, Renato and Diego, with the added flair of Elano and Robinho cutting in from the wings.
Robinho was undoubtedly the star of the show although with every impressive game the burden of being the ‘next Pele’ grew heavier.
Santos’ inexperienced side lurched between being wildly impressive- see the 4-2 away win against Corinthians in which Elano scored twice- and highly disappointing.
Despite only winning two of their last eight Campeonato Brasileiro games Santos scraped into the play-offs, meaning the first division dreams were still alive.
Route to the final
Santos’ first play-off game was against a Sao Paulo side boasting the talents of Kaka, Luis Fabiano and Ricardinho.
Alberto opened the scoring only for Kaka to equalise. But Santos kicked on with second-half goals from Robinho and Diego securing a first-leg lead.
The second-leg couldn’t have got off to a worst start when Fabiano’s fourth minute goal gave the Morumbi crowd plenty to shout about.
However Santos settled and hit back twice, through Leo and Diego, to progress to the semi-final.
The semi-final against Gremio wasn’t anywhere near as tense, thanks to a 3-0 first-leg lead which allowed Santos to lose the second game 1-0 and still reach the final.
And so Santos reached the Brazilian first division final. Thirty-four years of hurt ready to be buried by a swaggering crop of youngsters.
Corinthians, champions three years earlier, were the opposition, meaning a return to Santos for Deivid.
Once again Santos established a comfortable first-leg lead, with the 2-0 scoreline settling any nerves and allowing Robinho to take centre stage in the second leg.
Santos won 3-2, crowning a 5-2 aggregate win. The buzzword from the final was pedalada, such was the velocity with which Robinho produced step over after step over.
There were shades of Ronaldo in the way Robinho bamboozled defenders with the skill, something that would become synonymous with the forward’s playing style.
What happened next?
As is usually the case when Brazilian sides impress, it wasn’t long before the European vultures were hovering.
The first to depart was striker Alberto- tempted by the riches of Russia and a move to Dinamo Moscow.
Then Santos suffered a quadruple hit, with Alex joining Chelsea, Renato leaving for Sevilla, Elano joining Shakhtar Donetsk and Diego moving to Porto, to replace Deco.
With those four departures it was only so long before the crown jewel followed suit. And so, in July 2005 Robinho left for the bright lights of Real Madrid.
It was nice while it lasted.