The Copa Libertadores holders mark their centenary with their best team for almost 50 years, but questions over the current project's longevity must be answered to ensure success
By Daniel Edwards | South American Football Editor
As Santos stars, past and present, gather to mark the club's landmark 100th anniversary on Saturday, a certain optimism is bound to surround Vila Belmiro. Less than a year has passed since that magical night in Sao Paulo when goals from Danilo and Neymar helped the Brazilians defeat the challenge of Penarol and lift the Copa Libertadores for the first time in 48 years.
That victory was the biggest yet in the Peixe renaissance, which began at the start of the 21st century with the emergence of home-grown stars such as Robinho, Diego and Elano and continues in the present day with Neymar and Ganso, the posterboys of both the team and Brazilian football. After decades of underachievement and a failure to emulate the great side of Pele back in the days of black and white, Santos are now once again established as one of South America's most powerful institutions.
The big question is, however, is this success a generational accident, or can the club maintain their level to consistently fight alongside Brazil's giants such as Flamengo, Corinthians and Palmeiras? There have been great leaps forward in this respect. Whereas previously the likes of Robinho and Diego had to be sold to Europe to balance the books, the new Peixe are determined to fight for their young stars.
In this aspect they are unquestionably aided by the booming Brazilian economy, which is slowly making its effect felt in sport. In common with other Serie A clubs, Santos are now able to go into partnership with asset-rich, publicity-hungry local businesses and sponsors who are happy to work with a winning product and support them financially. Hence why someone like Neymar, at the age of just 20 and with only a handful of international appearances to his name, can boast a European-level salary which proved crucial in his decision to stay in his home nation until at least 2014.
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This investment in the superstars, however, has not come without its own price. At the start of 2012 the club announced that they were closing down their women's football team, twice winner of the Copa Libertadores Feminina and one of the most successful sides in Brazil. The futsal program was also victim to the cut, and although no official comment was made the general consensus is that the axings were necessary to balance the books after Neymar's lucrative new deal.
The other sacrifice made in keeping the flamboyant star can be seen right in the first team. The marquee names who bring in the sponsors may be retained, but a general hollowing out of the squad has continued unabated. Danilo, Alex Sandro, Alan Patrick and Ze Eduardo have all been sold to Europe after a fleeting spell in the Peixe and the defence in particular, as was aptly demonstrated in the Club World Cup against the irrepressible Barcelona, makes a mockery of the world-class club directors and staff want to construct in Vila Belmiro.
|"Brilliant over 90 minutes, the current Santos team still haven't proved they can do the same over an entire season"|
With Neymar, Ganso, Elano and Borges all present, there is no doubt that, as they celebrate the 100th birthday, few South Americans teams are as exciting to watch or as devastatingly effective in one-off games as the heirs of Pele, Pepe and Coutinho. Eighth and 10th-placed finishes in the last two national championships, however, point to a side that is still struggling to reproduce over 38 games what they can so brilliantly achieve inside a single 90 minutes. Until their league form begins to reflect their results in cups, the Peixe of 2012 will struggle to complete their dream of creating a dynasty equal to that of the 1960s Santasticos.
Few teams in world football can boast a more glorious century of success, excitement and legend than Santos, but the onus now must also be on the future. With more financial power than ever before and some of the planet's most exciting footballers wearing the distinctive shirt, there is plenty of reason to celebrate; but Neymar and co. must not stop trying to improve the failings of the Peixe model in order to seriously establish themselves as a consistent in Brazil and across the globe.