Football Features

How Santos could have lined up if they hadn’t sold their best players

By Squawka News

Published: 12:00, 12 December 2023

For the first in the club’s 111-year history, Santos have suffered relegation, meaning they’ll be playing in Serie B next year.

It’s a fall from grace for the Sao Paulo club, who have had some of the world’s best players in their team over the years. Santos have had Pele in his pomp and nurtured Neymar, but that history wasn’t able to help or inspire the current crop of players as they laboured to finish Brazil’s Serie A, one point from safety.

Relegation was sealed on the final day of the season with a 2-1 defeat to Fortaleza, which allowed both Bahia and Vasco do Gama to leapfrog Santos. Although a draw wouldn’t have been enough given results elsewhere, the misery was compiled with Fortaleza grabbing their winning in the sixth minute of second-half injury time.

So now Santos prepare for life as a second-tier club, and they have already made a change with Marcelo Teixeira elected as new president, returning to the role after 14 years.

But let’s take a look to happier times and the players that have featured for Santos, who are still playing. Maybe Santos could get the gang back together to fight for promotion in 2024.

GK: Rafael Cabral

  • Age: 33
  • Current club: Cruzeiro
  • Games played for Santos: 189

Rafael joined the Santos academy when he was 13 and after seven years of development, he signed a permanent contract in 2010. He spent three years at the club and won five trophies before signing for Napoli in 2013.

The Brazilian, who has made three appearances for the national team, is currently playing his football in the Brazil with Cruzeiro after joining from Reading in 2022.

RB: Danilo

  • Age: 32
  • Current club: Juventus
  • Games played for Santos: 78

Danilo started at America-MG before moving to Santos in 2010. He only played one season with the side before a string of mouth-watering full-back performances, which saw him score 10 goals, caught the eye of Portuguese giants Porto.

He moved to the Dragoes in 2012 and spent three successful years there, scoring 12 goals and grabbing 15 assists in 136 games. In the summer of 2015, he earned a huge move to Real Madrid but has since relocated to Man City and again to Juventus. Danilo lifted the Serie A title with the Old Lady in 2019/20 and has proven important across the backline for them, now captaining the club.

CB: Marcelo

  • Age: 36
  • Current club: Western Sydney Wanderers
  • Games played for Santos: 65

Not that one, centre-back Marcelo hailed from the Santos academy in 2007 and after two productive seasons at the Vila Belmiro, including winning a Campeonato Paulista, the defender relocated to Europe and joined Polish outfit Wisla Krakow.

From the hustle-and-bustle of the Ekstraklasa, the Brazilian has since made his way across the continent, pitching up at PSV Eindhoven, Hannover 96 and Besiktas, before finally settling at Lyon, where he captained his side to a Champions League semi-final appearance, knocking out the likes of Juventus and Manchester City along the way. Marcelo spent five years in total at Lyon, before making the short trip across France to Bordeaux, though he has since joined Australia’s Western Sydney Wanderers.

CB: Alex Sandro

  • Age: 32
  • Current club: Juventus
  • Games played for Santos: 53

An accomplished attacking full-back, Alex Sandro spent a season on loan at Santos from Deportivo Maldonado after moving from Atletico Paranaense.

He played 53 times during his only season at the club and was then signed by Porto in 2011. After impressing for the Portuguese giants over four seasons (and winning two league titles) he signed for Juventus in 2015 and established himself as one of world football’s best left-backs. However, over the past year he has been utilised as a centre-back in a back three.

LB: Emerson Palmieri

  • Age: 29
  • Current club: West Ham
  • Games played for Santos: 19

Emerson was a product of Santos’ academy, rising through the ranks but he only made 19 first-team appearances before being sent on his first loan away to Palermo. Another loan to Roma followed, this time for two years, and Emerson made that move permanent, though he would only stay in Rome for a year.

Emerson then moved to Chelsea, where he won the Europa League and Champions League, as well as the FA Cup and UEFA Super Cup. He’s now at West Ham, where he won the Europa Conference League, being the first ever player to win all three modern European trophies.

CM: Thiago Maia

  • Age: 26
  • Current club: Flamengo
  • Games played for Santos: 122

Maia became the latest homegrown starlet prised away from Santos by a wealthy European club after Lille secured his signature in 2017. He initially made his debut for Santos at the age of 17 and quickly became an ever-present in the club’s midfield.

Alongside Renato Augusto, Thiago Maia was key to Brazil’s midfield as they won Olympic gold in Rio, defeating Germany in the final on penalties. In the 2018/19 season, the midfield enforcer helped Lille climb to second in the Ligue 1 table, but he has since returned with Flamengo. It’s been a good move too, with Thiago Maia picking up the Copa Libertadores as well as the Brazilian league title and Recopa Sudamericana.

CM: Jean Lucas

  • Age: 25
  • Current club: Santos
  • Games played for Santos: 37

We’re dipping into the current Santos pot just once for this XI, and Jean Lucas has only just returned to the club. The midfielder first joined Santos in 2019 from Flamengo on loan, spending half a year with the club and playing 17 times before moving to Lyon. Jean Lucas would spend four years in France, also representing Stade Brest and Monaco, before rejoining Santos from the latter.


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RW: Felipe Anderson

  • Age: 30
  • Current club: Lazio
  • Games played for Santos: 106

Anderson’s rapid progression to Santos’ first team came rather fortuitously – for the winger that is – because an injury crisis to the Santastico, but once he demonstrated his technical verve and skill on the pitch, he remained a regular in the starting XI.

The twinkle-toed Brazilian helped the club to a famous Copa Libertadores win in 2011, and in 2013 Lazio made a move for his services. In the Italian capital, Anderson continued to wow supporters with his mesmeric performances, lighting up the Stadio Olimpico, which prompted rumours of a big-money move to one of Europe’s elite clubs.

But in the summer of 2018, it was West Ham who got their hands on the 2016 Olympic Gold Medal winner, signing Anderson for a club-record fee. However, after a positive start, things quietened down for the Brazilian and he is now back at Lazio.

CAM: Neymar

  • Age: 31
  • Current club: Al-Hilal
  • Games played for Santos: 225

Santos’ golden boy. Neymar spent ten years at the club after signing for the youth academy in 2003. Blessed with scintillating dribbling skills and remarkable flair, the Brazilian scored 136 goals in 223 games before earning himself a huge move to Barcelona in 2013.

After winning six trophies with Santos he continued to pick up titles in Spain, forming a devastating part of the Catalan side’s deadly M.S.N. strikeforce, playing alongside Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi.

Neymar clinched a plethora of titles at the Camp Nou, including the coveted Champions League trophy, but his time in Catalonia lasted just four years after PSG made him the world’s most expensive player ever when they brought him to Paris for £198m in 2017.

Neymar’s sole remit has been to help the Parisians lift their first-ever Champions League title but that eluded him and he eventually left (albeit with five league titles), following a number of stars to Saudi Arabia. However, he is currently out with a long-term injury, with some feeling it could bring an end to his career sooner rather than later.

LW: Rodrygo

  • Age: 22
  • Current club: Real Madrid
  • Games played for Santos: 45

The current poster boy of Santos’ esteemed academy, Rodrygo is the latest prodigiously gifted starlet to emerge from the club’s healthy production line, though such has been his meteoric rise to prominence that Real Madrid have wasted little time in securing his signature.

Scared they would lose out to eternal rivals Barcelona for Santos’ next world-class winger a la Neymar, Los Blancos couriered circa £40m to Brazil for the teenager’s services. He showed early signs of promise white shirt, scoring a perfect hat-trick against Galatasaray in the Champions League and netting seven goals in 26 appearances across all competitions during his debut season. And now he has become a mainstay in the Real Madrid team, the future of their attack alongside compatriot Vinicius Jr.

An honourable mention must go to another forward here, Bruno Henrique, one of several Santos alumni who helped Flamengo win the 2019 Copa Libertadores. Bruno Henrique even won the tournament’s Best Player award while doing so, ahead of the next guy in our line-up…

ST: Gabriel Barbosa

  • Age: 27
  • Current club: Flamengo
  • Games played for Santos: 157

“I was truly enchanted by the fans,” said Gabriel ‘Gabigol’ Barbosa after making his Serie A debut with Inter in 2016. “He has been humiliated physically, morally and psychologically,” said his agent less than a year later.

Gabriel played 112 minutes in nine league appearances in the period separating those two statements. To this day, he has only one league goal in European football. Frank de Boer, although possibly embittered by his sacking as Inter coach just 85 days after they hired him, blamed his attitude.

So why is he in this line-up? Well, because he’s box office. Flamengo, whom he joined on loan earlier that year, were losing the 2019 Copa Libertadores final to River Plate 1-0 as the 88th minute ticked out. Then Gabigol scored twice in minutes 89 and 90+2, did the Messi celebration, got sent off and Flamengo became South American champions for the first time in nearly four decades. He ended that Copa Libertadores campaign as top scorer (9 goals), mirroring the achievement in the 2019 Brazilian Serie A campaign (25 goals). Flamengo won that competition, too, and paid Inter €20m to sign their leading goalscorer permanently.

He’s proven to be the lucky charm, adding another Copa Libertadores in 2021/22.

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