How Pele transformed football minnows Santos into a world giant


30 December, 2022, 02:15 am
Last modified: 30 December, 2022, 02:19 am
Santos had won the Sao Paulo state championship before but with Pele in the team they embarked on a glorious run of 10 more state titles and six Brazilian championships.

Santos had won trophies before Pele signed, but his arrival prompted a long and sensational run of victories that over little more than a decade turned the medium-sized Brazilian club into one of the greatest names in world football.

Pele arrived in Santos in 1956, wearing long pants for the first time in his life and accompanied by his father and the scout who spotted him.

The transformation was quick for both him and his new club.

Santos had won the Sao Paulo state championship before but with Pele in the team they embarked on a glorious run of 10 more state titles and six Brazilian championships.

They also lifted the Copa Libertadores, South America's equivalent of the Champions League, in 1962 and 1963, and the same years won the Intercontinental Cup, the trophy between the best teams in Europe and South America.

In those spectacular 24 months, Santos played in nine tournaments and won eight of them, only losing the 1962 Sao Paulo state championship to Palmeiras because their schedule was so packed they had to play reserves in some matches.

Before Pele's arrival, Santos was a minnow, unlikely to compete with the biggest clubs in Brazil, never mind beat European giants like Real Madrid, Benfica and AC Milan.

Hailing from a provincial coastal city, they were overshadowed in Sao Paulo state by teams like Corinthians, Palmeiras, Portuguesa and Sao Paulo.

In Rio de Janeiro, the other centre of Brazilian football, big teams such as Botafogo, with Garrincha and Jairzinho in their side, were dominant.

The cities of Rio and Sao Paulo boasted populations in the millions while Santos was a small city of 265,000, meaning the club had smaller crowds and less money.

But with Pele in the side, Santos punched well above their weight.

His visibility on the international stage – aided by Brazil's three World Cup wins between 1958 and 1970 - meant teams from all over the planet were willing to pay big money to see him play.

Every year Santos crossed the globe, playing in Sheffield and Shanghai, Barcelona and Benin, and Pele was the star attraction. If he was injured or missing from the line-up their appearance fee was slashed.

He was often forced to play when he wasn't fully fit because the money they received was the only way for the club to survive – and to ensure Pele was paid what he was worth.

He could have signed for any one of the top European sides - Inter Milan, Real Madrid and Paris St Germain were among those who offered fortunes for his services - but he was happy at Santos, and the Brazilian leagues were every bit as competitive as those across the Atlantic.

His influence was enormous even though foreign audiences saw little of him. Clubs the world over were christened Santos in his honour. Babies took his name. Greek side Olympiakos were so proud of beating Santos they included a reference to it in their club hymn. Real Madrid pulled out of one match, because, Santos historians insist, they were afraid of being beaten.

And those who saw Pele play never forgot it.

"I immediately was mesmerised by this kid Pele," German film director Werner Herzog said of seeing him in Munich in 1960.

"Santos won 9 to 1. They scored one after the other and I saw something like magic, a kid scoring one goal after the other and doing things on the field that I never thought would be possible. Pure, total magic. And it's still with me."


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