Brazilian club Santos have enjoyed one of their most successful seasons since the days of Pelé.  Does it have to end?  Jack Lang reports from Rio.

As Robinho lifted the Copa do Brasil trophy on Wednesday night, Santos fans must have been struck by an odd mix of joy and melancholy. There was, of course, adequate reason to celebrate; the club, thanks to a 3-2 aggregate victory over Vitória, had won the cup for the first time in its illustrious history. The seasiders, however, may have to subside on this memory for the foreseeable future; a likely exodus of star players looks set to rip the heart out of the side.

Skilful support-striker Neymar has been the subject of covetous glances (and multi-million pound offers) from a number of Europe’s biggest teams…and West Ham. André, a raw forward with an eye for goal, will this week be flying to the Ukraine to join Dynamo Kiev in a €8 million deal; and Paulo Henrique Ganso, a visionary playmaker with maturity way beyond his years, will unquestionably attract growing interest in the coming months. All three have forced their way into the Brazil squad to play the USA next week, along with Robinho, who also looks set to return to Europe.

Central to the history of Santos has been the ability to produce and nurture batches of young players. In 1978, it was the goals of Juary and Pita, as well as the intelligent prompting of the waiflike João Paulo at the Morumbi which enabled Santos to lift the Campeonato Paulista a week later. In 2002, it was a trio of Europe-bound starlets which took the club to its first Campeonato Brasileiro. It was fitting, then, that one of the three, Robinho (Elano and Diego being the others), has been almost a father figure in the development of the latest crop.

The ascent of the Meninos da Vila has been astronomical. Although both Neymar and Ganso (a nickname meaning ‘goose’ – harsh but pretty fair) began to make an impact in the first team last year, their reputation has largely been forged in 2010, as has that of André. Between the turn of the year and the World Cup, Santos were in electric form; storming to the São Paulo state championship and strolling through the early rounds of the Copa do Brasil. With the young trio dovetailing with Robinho in attack, the Peixe represented a romantic, daring model of football at odds with the current trend in the Brasileirão (and of course the seleção).

The young squad has been a sensation in the Brazilian press, although not always for the right reasons. After Neymar’s cavadinha penalty (a delicate chip over the goalkeeper…when successful) was saved in the first leg of the cup final, the papers and television were awash with pundits berating the irresponsibility of the player; some even suggested that Robinho, the paradigm of the malandro (cheeky, sly, street-smart) Brazilian footballer, was becoming a bad influence on the youngsters. This theory, however, was debunked somewhat earlier this week; the former Real Madrid striker was the voice of reason after a webcast featuring four of his teammates started to get out of hand (yes, you read that right).

Whatever Robinho’s influence within the camp, the youngsters will do well to learn from his travails in Europe. The likes of Ganso and Neymar have far too much talent to play out their best years in their home country, as Robinho seems eager to do after returning from Manchester City with his tail between his legs. Winning the Copa do Brasil ought to prove a fitting curtain call for this group of Meninos; if they fulfil their potential, they will not be seen again on these shores for some years yet.

You can read more from Jack at Snap, Kaká and Pop!

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