‘It’s almost as if it’s not real’: How Santos, Pelé’s club, suffered relegation for the first time in its 111-year history
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‘It’s almost as if it’s not real’: How Santos, Pelé’s club, suffered relegation for the first time in its 111-year history

As is the case with many football fans across Brazil, supporters of Santos FC view their club as something of a second religion.

‘It’s almost as if it’s not real’: How Santos, Pelé’s club, suffered relegation for the first time in its 111-year history
‘It’s almost as if it’s not real’: How Santos, Pelé’s club, suffered relegation for the first time in its 111-year history

One of South America’s most storied teams and the club where Brazil great Pelé played for the majority of his career, Santos suffered an almost unimaginable fate last week.

For the first time in its 111-year history, Santos was relegated to Serie B, the second tier of the Brazilian game.

At full-time, there was sadness and devastation inside Santos’ Vila Belmiro stadium as the cameras panned across sobbing fans all around the ground. But there was also anger.

Those in attendance threw objects onto the pitch and some clashed with police, while multiple vehicles were set on fire across São Paulo.

Santos legend Pepe, who played alongside Pelé and whose tally of 403 goals for the club is second behind only ‘O Rei,’ said he “watched in disbelief” as the team he played for 741 times was relegated to Serie B.

“At 88, my heart has experienced many emotions, both good and bad,” Pepe wrote on Instagram.

“Undoubtedly a sad moment to see and, even with the ups and downs of the Peixe in this Brazilian championship, the possibility of the team going down didn’t cross my mind, as if the football gods were protecting us.”

Going into the final game of the season at home to Fortaleza Esporte Clube, a mid-table team with nothing to play for, Santos was in 15th place, two places outside the relegation zone.

Of all the possible permutations that would see one of either Vasco da Gama, Bahia or Santos get relegated, there was around only a 10% chance of Santos being relegated pre-match, Brazilian journalist and Santos fan Anthony Wells told CNN Sport.

But Santos’ 2-1 home defeat, combined with victories for Bahia and Vasco, condemned the Peixe to a place in Serie B next season.

“It’s almost as if it’s not real, you know?” Wells told CNN. “I had nightmares. I woke up this morning and I was like: ‘Am I actually living this? Did it really happen?’

“For Santos supporters, it’s just pure heartbreak and it happened in the worst possible way because they were confident that they were able to avoid relegation.”

‘It’s almost as if it’s not real’: How Santos, Pelé’s club, suffered relegation for the first time in its 111-year history
‘It’s almost as if it’s not real’: How Santos, Pelé’s club, suffered relegation for the first time in its 111-year history

That Santos’ relegation happened less than a year after Pelé’s death “makes things all the worse,” Wells said, and “so much more difficult” to take.

The Vila Belmiro stadium, Santos’ home and the site of Thursday’s catastrophic defeat, housed Pelé’s coffin following his death and welcomed thousands of Brazilians who came to pay their respects.

It was also the place Pelé called home for 18 seasons, scoring a stadium-record 288 goals there during an unparalleled career.

Despite Santos fans knowing a season of battling relegation was on the cards, Wells said, there was a hope that the club and the players would be able to “relieve that pain” somewhat and replace it with the pleasure of staying in the top flight.

“After the second Fortaleza goal, the exact opposite happened. It just amplified the pain,” Wells said.

“It made things so much worse and especially under the circumstances that no one really expected this relegation to happen. All they had to do was win at home. That’s all. That’s all they needed to do – and that was not the case.

“And many Santos supporters are saying: ‘Thank God Pelé didn’t see Santos relegated to the Serie B because he does not deserve that.”

‘It’s almost as if it’s not real’: How Santos, Pelé’s club, suffered relegation for the first time in its 111-year history
‘It’s almost as if it’s not real’: How Santos, Pelé’s club, suffered relegation for the first time in its 111-year history

The glory days of Pelé and Pepe, an unprecedented era of success that reaped six Brazilian championships and two Copa Libertadores titles, now more than ever feels like a distant memory but restructuring, as Pepe puts it, will be key to Santos’ rebirth.

“But let’s remember that SANTOS is BIG,” Pepe said. “Now it’s time to recognize the irregular campaign and identify the mistakes so that we can restructure and return to Serie A next year. A bad campaign that led to relegation would never be able to spoil the glorious history we have written.

For Santos fans, perhaps the most painful part of this relegation is that the writing had been on the wall for a couple of years, but the club continued to sleepwalk towards its fate.

Back-to-back midtable finishes in 2021 and 2022 papered over the cracks somewhat after two grueling campaigns, while the club was also close to suffering relegation in the São Paulo state league on a number of occasions.

Santos club president Andrés Rueda has borne the brunt of fan unhappiness since taking charge in 2021, but his term ended on Saturday as Marcelo Teixeira was re-elected to the post.

‘It’s almost as if it’s not real’: How Santos, Pelé’s club, suffered relegation for the first time in its 111-year history
‘It’s almost as if it’s not real’: How Santos, Pelé’s club, suffered relegation for the first time in its 111-year history

Teixeira’s first act as returning president was to retire Pelé’s legendary No. 10 jersey until Santos is promoted back to Serie A, telling reporters that the club “will be back in the top division, but until then, we won’t wear our most glorious shirt.”

The club is also $142 million in debt, according to the Athletic, a financial situation that will only be exacerbated by playing in a less popular division.

The club of Neymar Jr. and Real Madrid’s Rodrygo, Santos has long been able to rely on its academy to produce players for its first team and, eventually, sell abroad, but it is no longer the shining jewel it used to be.

“I’ll be Santos even if the ball doesn’t go in, even if the Vila is silent, even if the Sacred Mantle fades, even if victory is far away,” Rodrygo wrote on X, formerly Twitter, following Thursday’s result.

“I’ll be Santos no matter how long and hard the journey is, Santos in my chest and in my soul, in my shouts and in my applause!!!”

An immediate return to the first division is far from certain, Wells said, with many clubs in Serie B having planned their return to the top flight for several years and others already having experienced promotion and relegation on a number of occasions.

Wells also points to the examples of giants Vasco and Cruzeiro, who both spent multiple seasons in Serie B before being able to achieve promotion.

Wells paints a daunting picture for Santos in Brazil’s second tier, noting that the club will need to overhaul its finances, playing squad, coaching staff and senior management.

“Everyone is going to have to be on the same page,” added Wells.

In the aftermatch of the defeat to Fortaleza, Brazilian commentator Juca Kfouri wrote: “Nothing will mark Brazilian football more in 2023 than Santos’ relegation.”

While relegation will remain an inedible stain on the club’s history, Santos has a long way to go before the start of next season to ensure its stay in Serie B is only a fleeting one.

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