This Wednesday's final rivals share a rich history in the Copa, but after years of disappointment it is time for the new generation to start writing their own legendary chapter
By Daniel Edwards in Montevideo
As Penarol and Santos prepare to do battle this Wednesday in Montevideo, both teams will be more than aware of the significance of such a fixture. Of course, Neymar, Elano, Dario Rodriguez and the rest of the participants will be playing for the Copa Libertadores trophy, one of the most prestigious in the world of football.
Also on the line is a position in the Club World Cup final, the highest honour possible for a South American as they earn the opportunity to take on their more heralded counterparts across the Atlantic Ocean in Europe. Unlike the Old Continent, victory on this stage is prized more than any other by fans and players. There is another dimension, however, to this final; the chance for these two venerable institutions to retake their place at the top of South America and add a new chapter to their rich histories.
When the Copa Libertadores began in 1960, Santos and Penarol were the two eminent forces in local football, a fact reflected by their domination of the competition in its early years. The Manya were to win the Copa in the first two years of its existence in 1960 and 61, before the next couple of championships finished in the dominion of the legendary Peixe team of the era.
These would prove to be the last times, however, that the Vila Belmiro maestros would lift the trophy. Pele, Coutinho and Co. sacrificed their competitiveness in South America to tour the world as football’s Harlem Globetrotters, and the rise of Argentina as a powerhouse in the late 1960s ensured that until the 1990s, only two trophies were lifted by Brazilian sides.
In that time the teams would meet only once in the final, in Santos’ triumph of 1962. It took no fewer than three games to separate the combatants; a 2-1 victory for Santos in Montevideo was overturned 3-2 by the Carboneros in Vila Belmiro, before Pele’s men ran rampant in a play-off held in River Plate’s Estadio Monumental. It was a golden age for South American and especially Brazilian football, as the Samba nation lifted both the World Cup and Libertadores titles; and in this epoch, Santos held a strong claim to be the best team on earth.
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Six world champions appeared in the Peixe side; as well as the golden strike duo of Pele and Coutinho, Gilmar, Mauro, Zito and Pepe all were stars. The Santasticos were acclaimed across the world for their talent and scored 29 goals in the tournament, an outstanding accomplishment across the nine games which constituted that year's competition.
“Pele’s Santos was the greatest ever, followed by the Botafogo of Garrincha, Didi and Nilton Santos,” Brazil legend Tostao replied without hesitation when asked who he considered the best team ever to walk onto a football field. German legend Franz Beckenbauer also saluted the side as one of the best of all time, albeit with the qualification “of their generation”. Just focusing on the more celebrated team in white, however, is a disservice to Wednesday’s rivals, who deserve to be acclaimed for the pioneering role they played in developing the modern game.
One star in particular criminally overlooked by the sport’s historians is the great Alberto Spencer, the top scorer ever in the Libertadores with 60 goals in 92 games. Ironically, his famous adversary from 1962 must bear some of the blame; Pele omitted Spencer from his list of the greatest 100 players to much criticism, with even British journalist David Mellor blasting ‘O Rei’ for the oversight.
Born in Ecuador to a Jamaican father, Spencer was known as a fearsome header of the ball and also one of the first black players to gain cult status in football. A legendary story runs that ‘Magic Head’ was once subject to a horror tackle when on tour; a team-mate proceeded to grab the offender by the neck and send a blunt warning: “The next time you hit the black guy I will kill you, because he is the one who puts food in our mouths.”
Spencer was the leading light of a team that boasted quality across the pitch. Jose ‘El Pepe’ Sasia was the Ecuadorian’s forward partner in crime and an early Uruguayan legend, a man of principle who was forced to live his later years outside the nation after being shot and injured by security forces of the violent dictatorship of the 1970s. Former Barcelona winger Luis Cubilla (right) and future Sao Paulo star Pedro Rocha were also stand-out names from this era, but the Carboneros were destined to fall short against their illustrious opponents.
Penarol fell to a 2-1 defeat in Uruguay, a double from Coutinho taking the honours for the away team. When all looked lost, though, an outstanding three goal haul from Spencer (2) and Sasia secured a 3-2 win in the Vila Belmiro, setting up a final decider in the Monumental which was taken by the scruff of the neck by Pele. The legend struck twice in the second half after Omar Caetano’s own goal had opened the scoring for Santos, leaving the travelling fans to celebrate a maiden Libertadores triumph at the first time of asking.
No-one would have thought at that point, however, that after repeating their success the year after it would take until 2004 to reach the final again, or that 48 years later the Peixe are fighting for just a third title in their history. Penarol, meanwhile have gone on to win the title three more times since 1962, putting them behind only Independiente in the list of champions; but 1987 was the last time they did the lap of honour with the famous trophy in hand.
These two giants of world football enter a game steeped in history, which cannot help draw comparisons to those grainy black and white images of the past, played to a background of tens of thousands of screaming spectators. More importantly though, Neymar, Elano, Dario Rodriguez and Co. play for a much bigger prize; the chance to make their own place in history, and shake off the ghosts of past legends to go down in the annals of Libertadores legend.