During the last two or three years it has become increasingly apparent that sooner or later Santos would wrest the ‘World's-best’ tag from Real Madrid, and now that it has happened only those who wear blinkers will be surprised.
Only one thing could have prevented the event - the transfer of Pelé to Real - or perhaps a serious injury that would have ended the Brazilian wonder's connection with the active side of the game. To place so much emphasis on the presence of Pelé is probably unfair, though many international experts have coined a new proverb: "He, who has Pelé, rules the roost,''
To a very great extent, this is true, for had he been transferred to Real Madrid or Juventus for example, they would surely have won last season's European Cup, and probably beaten Santos in the World final. While it is true to say that Pelé's contribution to the success of Santos has been considerable and vital, it would be decidedly unfair to label them a one-man team. At times the club directors have entered the transfer market, and usually bought with discretion; Lula the club coach has shown uncanny sureness in pushing fifteen- and sixteen-year-olds into his first team, and though this is by no means all. It would be grossly unfair to underestimate Zito (a great player by any standard), Jair, now retired, and a host of talented and rapidly developing youngsters' of which Coutinho, Dorval, Mengalvio and Lima are the pick.
Pelé, however, is the centre piece, and his race to the top of the World soccer social ladder is inextricably interwoven with the progress of Santos F.C. His influence has spread far beyond the touchlines. TV has carried his superb performances into every village in Brazil; no less than seventy-three clubs called Santos are now registered with the Confederacao Brasileiro de Deportes and so completely has Pelé captured the imagination of Brazilian youngsters that every boy in the country wants to play for Santos. In other countries, senior clubs fight amongst themselves for promising teenagers, but because Santos can offer the opportunity to play in the shadow of Brazil's national gem; they can have their pick, not only from the state of São Paulo, but from the entire country.
Santos is Brazil's busiest seaport, the outlet for industrial São Paulo, but at the end of last century it was the coffee plantations situated along that part of the Atlantic coast that took the British Merchant Navy there. The ships went there to bring coffee to Europe, and their crews took football to Brazil. In 1902 the São Paulo championship began, with several clubs from the town of Santos taking part, but as yet Santos F.C. did not exist. After a decade of São Paulo football, Santos came into being in 1912, but for more than twenty years they took a back seat. Then in the 'thirties came two factors that were to make a great contribution to their progress; the connection with the present Club President Senhor Jorge Athié Coury, then an amateur player with the club, and the decision to turn professional in 1933 .
Senhor Coury was himself an excellent player with a deep-rooted interest in the game and the conviction that one should play only for satisfaction and enjoyment, and when the club turned pro, he left. The estrangement did not last long, however, and he returned, still an amateur, to help win the São Paulo Championship in 1935. Then, after his retirement, he turned to the administrative side of the game.
A President with a football background is a rare but invaluable exception to the game generally - Real Madrid's Santiago Bernabéu is another who once played for the club over which he now presides, though the vast majority of bosses come into the game with either authority (from politics) or money (from industry). The success of these two clubs with former footballers at the helm points to a moral but though I cannot go into this aspect here it seems certain that Senhor Coury's background and the influence he has been able to exert within the club have played a vital part in the progress of Santos.
The third and vital landmark in the progress of Santos came in 1955-56 when the club engaged one of Brazil's finest inside forwards, Jair, and "discovered" Pelé. Fifteen years old, Pelé was a real child prodigy, and within six months had established himself in the first team and was scoring goals freely. Jair on the other hand was a veteran, thirty four years old, and one of the stars of Brazil’s 1950 World Cup team who had seen service with Vasco da Gama, Flamengo and Palmeiras. His stabilising influence, his experience and calm authority blended perfectly with the mutual talents of Zito - already half established, Pelé, and a host of other youngsters introduced at this time.
The São Paulo championship was won in 1955 and 1956; they were second in 1957 when Dorval and Mengalvio made their first appearance and when the 1958 title was won Jair had stepped down. His task was completed and from then on it was the troupe of teenagers who held the stage. Prior to 1955, the top teams had been Corinthians, fifteen times champions, and São Paulo, with eleven successes to their credit. But in seven years their traditions have been swept aside. In eight seasons Santos have been champions six times and runners-up twice, and in 1962, their fiftieth year, they've taken an indisputable grip on the World championship that they should not be forced to relinquish for some time to come.
Santos are not a wealthy club by European standards though they can afford to buy when necessary. They make money enough, and pass most of it on to the forty or fifty professionals on their books. Their stadium, the tiny Villa Belmiro, is far from lavish though certainly comfortable, and plans have been laid to improve the capacity to 30,000 which will be enough for their ordinary needs. Big league games are staged in nearby São Paulo, and the superclass games with an international flavour and therefore even greater drawing power are often put on in Rio de Janeiro's Maracana. Why, ask Santos with justification, spend half a million pounds on building a new giant stadium of our own? Santos' attitude is typified by their treatment of one of their young defenders Pioti, who sustained a serious injury that forced him out of the game. The club bought a house, handed him the deeds, and put him on a monthly pension. This kind of thing makes a club "big" in the fullest sense, and combined with their determination to find and develop talented youngsters, it will go a long way to keeping them at the top.
Every year thousands of youngsters write to Santos for a trial. None is ignored, thousands of recommendations are followed up and hundreds are "interviewed" in trial matches every January. All are under fifteen; very many are talented and the club seeks to choose the most intelligent, the most skilled and help them to the top. Pelé was the first to earn a really big reputation but following behind him are a host of others. In the present team are Dorval, Mengalvio, Coutinho, Lima and one who promises to equal them all, seventeen-year-old inside-forward Luis Claudio. Dorval, an outside right with a Matthews like shuffle, a deceptive body swerve and fine technique, has already put in five years with Santos and is still only nineteen. His talents were so obvious that he was capped in a needle match against Argentina in Buenos Aires when only fifteen! Pagao, a centre forward of exceptional quality, could have made a real big impact on the game had he not had brittle bones. Still only twenty-seven, he’s suffered two broken legs and many minor injuries and is now relegated to the reserve ranks filling in anywhere in attack and always successful. Coutinho, capped two years ago when seventeen, hammers goals like a master - a star in his own right, and acts as the perfect foil to Pelé, with whom he has built up a tremendous understanding; Mengalvio, an inside-right, who was Didi's understudy for the last World Cup and will surely win himself a regular place in the national team, is from a different mould. With Zito he controls the game from midfield but has the same deft touch, and a similar ability to exploit the long pass at the right time, that Didi has. One more who should not be overlooked is twenty-year-old Antonio Lima, who performs with distinction at right-back, right half and inside-right, but there's a whole string of teenagers all bursting with talent being carefully 'blooded’ in friendly matches and ready to claim a regular place at the earliest opportunity.
At the moment it's the terrible twins that catch the eye; Pelé and Coultinho. Between them they grab around eighty percent of the Santos goals and many of them they make for each other, with what the French call a fabulous "un-deux". With perfect understanding they give first time, return passes to each other, the ball being pushed into gaps between the defenders for the other to race through and score. Pelé, in midfield, repeatedly pushes the ball up to the feet of Coutinho and immediately runs up alongside him for a return pass. If the centre-half moves to cover Pelé, Coutinho turns to the other flank and goes through alone; if the centre-half challenges him the ball is promptly returned to Pelé as he strides majestically past the king pin of the defence. An exceptional ability with the ball; sheer speed; dazzling shooting and intelligent understanding lie behind their success. In recent years I have seen only one other "tandem" of similar ability - Di Stefano and Puskas as they were for Real Madrid around 1960 when they hammered seven goals between them at Hampden Park. Di Stefano then was thirty-three, and Puskas thirty-two. Pelé now is still only twenty two and Coutinho nineteen! This is the real measure of their success, and opens the way to one of the most intriguing questions in World football. Can these two; Pelé and Coutinho, go on improving? And if the answer to that question is yes, just how good will this pair be ten seasons from now??????
It cannot be stressed too heavily that the successes achieved by Santos have derived from their determined efforts to develop their own stars, yet so far they have been unable to produce enough good class defenders. Even right-half Zito is ninety per cent an attacking player, and to establish their claim to World supremacy they had to buy. The man they wanted in 1960 was Brazil's 1958 centre-half and captain Luis Bellini but the fee demanded by Vasco da Gama was too high and they finally settled for Mauro, who cost five million cruzeiros from São Paulo F.C. Calvet was also bought, and the club have reinforced still further by laying out a big but undisclosed fee for a promising young defender, Ismael, but the buy that caused most eyebrows to be raised was that of Gilmar, from Corinthians of São Paulo, early in 1961. Thirty two-year-old Gilmar performed with distinction for Brazil in the World Cups of 1958 and 1962 and is clearly the best 'keeper in the country, yet many critics feel that the second best is Laercio, previously first choice for Santos and Laercio is thirty-one.
Two years ago, the forward talents fielded by Santos were formidable enough, though there were times when the defence creaked ominously. Throwing everything into attack, and relying on their ability to score five or six goals and still win, despite the fact that they might concede four, brought in the cash customers and helped them build up a big reputation, but it was certainly a handicap when they met the elite of Europe and South America in competition. Now with the gaps more than adequately filled, the rearguard can withstand a severe mauling without giving way, while at the other end Dorval, Mengalvio, Coutinho, Pelé and Pepé have enough ability to swamp even the most heavily reinforced and best disciplined defences. Benfica learned this to their cost in the final of the 1962 World Clubs Cup. After holding on to a 3-2 defeat in Brazil, Benfica could have been excused for thinking they could reverse the result at home in Lisbon, yet they were shattered and demoralised in a 5-2 defeat! Any other club in Europe - any other club in the World would go exactly the same way, facing Santos at full strength.
While Real Madrid were at the top, they relied very largely on a system. At its base was an extremely capable defence which gave little away, and a very talented inside forward trio of Del Sol (who worked), Di Stefano (who gave all round ability), Puskas (who specialised in scoring), and the combined blended talents of the trio as a unit. One could predict with reasonable accuracy how they would play, who would stand out, and what the result of a match would be, but with Santos this is impossible.
To see Santos is an indescribable experience, and one comes away convinced that they have no equals. Each of the players is an artist, admittedly with his own special talents, but each attempting to outdo his colleagues in individual brilliance, and yet combining perfectly to produce an even flow is a shattering skill. It has been said often that football is a "team-game" yet the Santos brand of soccer is more an exhibition of craft and skill; a soccer circus with ringmaster Zito (the captain) cracking his whip now and again to insist that they score goals.
With the game plunging rapidly downhill; with 4-2-4 and 3-3-1-3 dragging us closer and closer to all-out defence and the inevitable goal-less draws that will follow, Santos are blowing a refreshingly clear-sighted breeze over the World game. Significantly they are sending this breeze downwards, for the rest of the field are very, very far beneath them.
This article originally appeared in the January 1962 edition of World Soccer Magazine. You can subscribe for a ridiculously low sum by clicking here.