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  Sunday, 16 February, 2003, 18:15 GMT
Santos revive spirit of Pele
Santos take on Corninthians in the Sao Paolo Championship
Santos have moved ahead of city rivals Corintihians
World Football's Tim Vickery finds two teenage sensations stirring old passions for Pele's old club Santos.

Lightning appears to have struck twice on the Brazilian city of Santos.

A port on the Atlantic coast, Santos is an hour's bus ride away from the sprawling metropolis of Sao Paulo.

By rights there is no way that Santos should have the best football team in Brazil.

Santos beating Corinthians is like Brighton being better than Arsenal.

Robinho dribbles better than Pele

Santos coach Emerson Leao

But, for a second time, Santos seem to have entered an era of supremacy.

And once again the repercussions of their success look set to extend beyond the boundaries of Brazil.

In the late 1950s Santos had assembled a fine group of players. The addition of the teenage Pele made them all but unstoppable.

The Copa Libertadores, South America's Champions League, was founded in 1960.

Distances are vast in South America, and national rivalries are fierce.

The tradition of club football in the continent is essentially one of local derbies.

There was no guarantee that the Libertadores would be a success. But the attraction of Santos proved strong enough to fill stadiums all over the continent.

Emerson Leao issues instructions from the Santos bench
Leao has guided Santos back into the spotlight

Just as Di Stefano and Real Madrid helped launch the European Cup, so Pele and Santos got the Libertadores off the ground.

Although Pele stayed until 1974, almost a decade earlier the club decided not to give priority to winning international titles.

Instead they travelled the world making money from exhibition games. And once Pele retired they slipped back to their previous mediocrity.

Since 1966, Santos' only participation in the Libertadores was a brief and unsuccessful campaign in 1984.

But now they are back. And once again an entire continent is clamouring to see them.

Last December they won the Brazilian championship with an exciting young side spearheaded by two teenage sensations.

'Better than Zico'

Coach Emerson Leao says that striker Robinho "dribbles better than Pele" and playmaker Diego "co-ordinates the attack better than Zico."

In his time as Brazil goalkeeper Leao was a team-mate of both Pele and Zico, so his opinion carries credibility.

Nevertheless it is extraordinary praise. And South America waited anxiously for the Copa Libertadores to see if it was justified.

Nobody was disappointed with the wonderkid's debut.

Away wins are rare in the Libertadores. And Santos had a difficult first fixture, away to Colombian side America - stalwarts of the competition who kept a clean sheet in all four of their home games last year.

Against Santos, though, they were torn apart. The visitors were applauded off the field after a breathtaking 5-1 win.

Party poopers

This week Santos seek to maintain their momentum in their first home game.

This time a comfortable win is expected - and therein lies the danger. The opponents are 12 de Octubre, a tiny team from the Paraguayan countryside.

But what they lack in size and tradition they will attempt to make up for in customary Paraguayan virtues of grit and solid footballing sense.

They seem ideally suited to the role of party poopers.

So Thursday night is one more test in the young lives of the Santos wonderkids.

Up until now they have cleared all obstacles with ease - leaving a continent waiting for confirmation that the spirit of Pele has descended on the likes of Diego and Robinho.


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