Santos, home club of Pele and Neymar, face crisis and relegation as Brazilian league evolves

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As Pele turned 81 earlier this week, the club he represented so well for so long have slipped into the relegation zone.

Pele wore the white shirt of Santos -- occasionally black and white stripes -- between 1956 and 1974. He joined a team with a galaxy of stars, became by far the biggest, and together with his supporting cast had a claim to be the best club side in the world.

Santos, supplied many of the players who won Brazil's first three World Cups, in 1958, 1962 and 1970. They are a truly remarkable club because they have spent over a century punching well above their weight.

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All of Brazil's other major clubs are based in their respective state capitals. Santos are an exception. The club known as O Peixe ("The Fish") represents a port city about an hour's drive (in good traffic) down the hill from the sprawling metropolis that is Sao Paulo. The population of Santos is under half a million. And yet, decade after decade, they have stepped into the ring and at least held their own against the big city giants.

After the era of Pele, Santos inevitably fell back a bit. But they have made a roaring recovery in the current century based on excellent youth development. The key year was 2002, when they were surprise winners of the Brazilian league with an extraordinarily young side featuring the fresh talents of Diego, Robinho, Elano and Renato. The conveyor belt has kept chugging along.

In 2011, they won the Copa Libertadores with a youthful side spearheaded by Neymar, which also included Brazil full-backs Danilo and Alex Sandro. More recently Rodrygo, so impressive for Real Madrid against Barcelona this past weekend, is another Santos product.

But there are problems implicit in functioning as a club that produces in order to sell. There is always the danger of reaching the tipping point -- at which the stars sold cannot possibly be replaced with the same quality.

Results suffer, and the next generation of youth products are hurled into the first team in desperation, expected to cope with responsibilities that are beyond their experience and maturity. Santos may well be at that point.

Four clubs get relegated in Brazil, which may well be too many. It introduces a high degree of instability and dangers to financial planning. A number of big sides have been relegated in recent years. Many have come back stronger, using a season in the second division to rebuild and pick up momentum. This has become a little more difficult now that "parachute payments" -- financial help for relegated teams -- have been scrapped.

Even so, it would probably not be an unmitigated disaster if another prominent club, Gremio, were to go down. The big club from the southern city of Porto Alegre are having a nightmare campaign, and recently parted company with veteran coach Luiz Felipe Scolari. With twelve games still to play, they lie second from bottom of the table. If they cannot wriggle free of relegation then it is easy to imagine such a big, well structured club bouncing straight back.

But that may not apply to Santos, as trends in Brazilian football may not be moving in their favour. The country has traditionally thought in terms of a "big 12" -- four giants each from Rio de Janeiro (Flamengo, Fluminese, Botafogo, Vasco da Gama) and Sao Paulo (Corinthians, Sao Paulo, Palmeiras, Santos), and two each from Belo Horizonte (Atletico Mineiro, Cruzeiro) and Porto Alegre (Gremio, Internacional). The idea was that all twelve went into the league campaign in any given season with a more or less equal chance of emerging as champions. That has gone.

Flamengo and Palmeiras, this year joined by Atletico Mineiro, have broken away as super-clubs, monopolising all the major titles. And some less traditional clubs have used skillful management to make significant breakthroughs -- Athletico Parananense from the south, Red Bull Bragantino from in-state Sao Paulo, Fortaleza in the northeast.

This has squeezed some of those traditional dozen. Three are currently in the second division -- and after charging headfirst into financial meltdown, Cruzeiro this year will be happy not to drop to the third. The Rio duo of Botafogo and Vasco da Gama are doing better. But for the foreseeable future it is not easy to imagine Botafogo, for example, being able to compete on level terms with the super-clubs.

And the same may be true of Santos. Can a club from a relatively small city continue to fight on even terms with the giants? Trying to do it led the club into huge financial problems. Last year they owed money from previous transfers and were banned by FIFA from signing new players. On the pitch they made a fabulous response, fighting their way through to the final of last year's Libertadores, where they went down 1-0 to cash-rich neighbours Palmeiras.

But it clearly was not sustainable, and it set a bar which would inevitably weigh heavily on the 2021 team. Venezuelan wizard Yeferson Soteldo moved to Toronto FC in Major League Soccer, promising striker Kaio Jorge went to Juventus, international centre-back Lucas Verissimo joined Benfica, his defensive partner Luan Peres went to Marseille.

Santos still gambled on an attacking gameplan. In came Argentine coach Ariel Holan, who quickly baulked at the size of the task, and was replaced by the similarly front-foot Fernando Diniz. Then the panic button was pushed, and in came defensive specialist Fabio Carrille. So far it has not worked, with just one win in nine games and hardly a goal to celebrate.

The club has now slipped into the relegation zone, storm clouds are gathering, and crisis meetings are going ahead. Santos still can count on some wonderful teenagers -- centre-back Kaiky, midfielders Sandry and Gabriel Pirani, winger Angelo. But it is asking a lot to demand that these players drag Santos clear of a first ever, and potentially disastrous, descent to the second division.

On Wednesday they host Fluminense, full of beans after a memorable local derby win over Flamengo at the weekend. Then comes a visit to Athletico Parananense, one of the most difficult away games in the league, followed by a high octane Sao Paulo derby against Palmeiras. The fixture list is not helping.

As it stands, mathematicians estimate that Santos have a 45% probability of going down, and that number could increase rapidly. The club with the fishy nickname, founded on the very day that the Titanic went down now, must advert its own iceberg to avoid further floundering.