Neymar and Ganso the crown jewels of Santos' new generation
Starlets Neymar and Paulo Henrique Ganso have inspired Santos' attacking play
The Brazilian public has clamored for the pair's inclusion in the World Cup roster
Both Neymar and Ganso played in recent youth World Cups with middling results
On the same day the Titanic struck that fatal iceberg in 1912, a club was founded that would raise the profile of Brazilian soccer.
All around the world Santos are almost certainly the team from Brazil that most people have heard of. This is a remarkable achievement for a club representing a relatively small city. Santos is a port with a population under 500,000, an hour's drive away from sprawling Sao Paulo, South America's biggest city. But the seaside club have often punched well above its weight, getting the best of metropolitan rivals Corinthians, Palmeiras and Sao Paulo, and often anyone else who stood in its path as well.
Clearly, much of the prestige of Santos is wrapped up with the figure of Pele, who wore its colors between 1956-73. But it would be a mistake to see the achievements of the club as solely the work of one man, however great.
Firstly, Pele had the immense fortune to be introduced as a teenager into a side that was already magnificent. Secondly, throughout his time there he had a superb supporting cast. And thirdly, the club have come on strong once again in the last few years.
Pele and Co. won the world club title in 1962 and 63, overcoming Benfica and Milan. The late 60s and early 70s were spent as soccer's version of the Harlem Globetrotters. The club gave up on chasing international titles, and instead played lucrative friendlies all over the world, bringing in the cash necessary to pay the players. Once Pele retired (later to be lured back by New York Cosmos) Santos slipped back. Brazil's national championship began in 1971. Santos had never won it -- until, in the last few years, the club's youth policy started paying off.
An amazingly young Santos side -- nobody over 27 -- won the title in 2002, and the club repeated the feat two years later. Making his name in these triumphs was Robinho -- now, of course, back at the club on a six-month loan in a bid to sharpen himself up for the coming World Cup.
The move seems to have been a success. Struggling for form at Manchester City, Robinho has rediscovered his game back on home ground. But however well he is playing, he is having to divide the plaudits with the latest products of the Santos youth development system.
Just turned 18, Neymar is a support striker of frightening talent, rated by many judges as more impressive than Robinho was at the same age. He has some of the same tricks, but is blessed with more vision of the game, is more direct and cooler in front of goal. And languid, left-footed attacking midfielder Paulo Henrique Ganso, 20, is another wonderful prospect. Together with Robinho and the rest of the gang, the pair have been playing some spell-binding stuff, full of the joy and irreverence of youth.
Coach Dorival Junior has been sending them out in a bold 4-3-3 formation, and his team has been gaining comparisons with Barcelona -- at which point the warning lights should probably be flashing.
Barcelona has done it all. It has scooped the important prizes by beating the best that anyone else can throw at it. So far, this Santos side has not even come close.
"Santos have been playing very well," said Pele recently, "but they need to be tested abroad, in a match in Uruguay or Paraguay. We need to see how these kids behave in that kind of environment."
His analysis is correct -- but does not go far enough. Santos hasnot yet seriously been tested at home. So far, the 2010 model of the team have been fighting on two fronts -- the Sao Paulo state championship, and the early stages of the Brazilian Cup. Santos has been running up baseball scores and, I stress again, it has been wonderful to watch. But the hard work has not even started. Its opponents in the cup have been weak, and the state championships in Brazil have now become discredited. It is becoming increasingly difficult to cover up the fact that these are bloated tournaments of limited significance, which serve the interests of the power structure of Brazilian soccer while sacrificing those of the major clubs. Of Santos' local rivals, Corinthians and Sao Paulo are far more concerned with their Copa Libertadores campaigns, while Palmeiras has yet to climb out of the crisis it fell into towards the end of last year. So far, then, Santos have been rabbit killers -- though, if management can keep this side together (a big if), it does indeed have the potential to become much more.
With such electric domestic form, some Brazilian observers are now getting on the bandwagon to force the selection of Neymar and Paulo Henrique Ganso in Brazil's World Cup squad.
It appears to have been overlooked that just a few months ago the pair played in World Cups at youth level and hardly set the planet ablaze.
In September and October, Ganso was in Brazil's U-20 side that unluckily lost to Ghana in the final. He had some good moments during the tournament, scored one outstanding goal, but had problems imposing himself on the game and was replaced in five of the seven games.
A couple of weeks later Neymar fared worse in the U-17 World Cup. He scored an excellent individual goal against Japan, but then made little impression against Mexico and Switzerland. Both times, with Brazil desperate for a goal, he was substituted, and the pair of 1-0 defeats meant that the much-hyped team was eliminated in the group stage.
Such failures are part of the learning curve. History teaches again and again that a bad World Cup today can help pave the way to a good one tomorrow. Ganso and Neymar could indeed make a contribution to Brazil's senior World Cup campaign.
But the idea that, based on their domestic form, they are ready to lead the charge in South Africa is unrealistic, and quite possibly harmful. Heaping that type of expectation on such young shoulders can do for a career what the iceberg did to the Titanic way back on the day that Santos were born.