To many fans, especially those aged over 60, Pele remains the greatest footballer of all time. Some may prefer Lionel Messi, Diego Maradona, Cristiano Ronaldo or others, but the Brazilian legend is undoubtedly right up there in the reckoning.

Younger supporters – and less avid fans –may know relatively little about Pele, or Santos, the Brazilian club where he spent most of his career. However, Santos were recently relegated for the very first time in their history on the 7th of December 2023. Given they were founded in 1912 that is a lot of history and a very long, previously unbroken stay in the top tier of Brazilian football. We’ll take a look at what happened, the state of the club and give more general info about Santos, for those unfamiliar with this famous side.

Who are Santos: Quick Facts

Before we look in more detail at Pele’s former club, and what happened in their recent campaign to see them relegated, let’s deal with some basics, for those that think Santos is related to Santa!

  • Founded – 14th April 1912
  • Location – Santos, on Brazil’s east coast, in the state of Sao Paulo, about 50 miles south of the city of Sao Paulo
  • Stadium – Vila Belmiro, or officially Estádio Urbano Caldeira
  • Capacity – 16,068
  • Shirt – black and white stripes
  • Major honours – 3 x Copa Libertadores, 8 x Campeonato Brasileiro Serie A, 1 x Copa do Brasil, 22 x Campeonato Paulista

Santos Relegated From Brazil’s Serie A

Serie A League table - Santos Relegation

The format of Brazilian football’s top echelon has changed various times over the years but currently the top level of domestic football is the country-wide Serie A. It is a standard 20-team league, with 38 fixtures per side but unlike the Premier League and many other competitions, four sides are automatically relegated each campaign.

Whilst Santos have performed relatively well in the state tournament, the Paulista, their finishes in the full, nationwide, pro league, the Brasileirao, or Serie A, have been dipping for some time. They last won the Brazilian top flight back in 2004 when Robinho, of whom more later, was banging in the goals.

However, more recently they have been more of a mid-table outfit, 2016 and 2017 aside when they finished second and third respectively. They also finished runners-up in 2019 but since then they have been suffering from financial issues and results have steadily declined. We can see their final position over the past decade in the table below.

Year League Position
2023 17th
2022 12th
2021 10th
2020 8th
2019 2nd
2018 10th
2017 3rd
2016 2nd
2015 7th
2014 9th

How 2023 Played Out

Santos struggled for all of the season after beginning the campaign with a defeat and a draw. A win followed and a better run took them to seventh after six games but that was as good as it got for the team nicknamed the Fish, or more prosaically, the black and whites. They didn’t win any of their next seven league games and just one of 13 to drop to 17th and into the relegation zone.

They rallied, however, and a nice run of results, including just two defeats in 12, took them up to 13th with just five matches to go. However, they failed to win any of those, with two draws and then three consecutive defeats to end the campaign seeing them miss out on an agonising last day for fans that have historically been so used to success.

They were still in the mix on the final day of the season, battling it out with Vasco da Gama to avoid joining the already relegated trio of America Mineiro, Coritiba and Goias. Santos were at home against Fortaleza, who were safely in mid-table, and with eight minutes of the season to go Santos were doing enough to stay up.

The match was all-square at 1-1, whilst rivals Vasco were also level. However, Vasco took the lead in the 82nd minute and would go on to win 2-1, whilst Santos conceded in injury time to lose by the same score. In the end they finished in 17th on 43 points and joined the other three sides in being demoted.

Vasco da Gama actually ended up in 15th on 45 points, with Bahia 16th on 44. This relegation for the iconic side leaves Sao Paulo and Flamengo as the only two teams never to have been relegated.

Santos Legends: Best 3 Santos Players

As one would expect from a club of Santos’ status, they have had so many hugely talented players over the years. Robinho, once of Man City and Real Madrid, played 138 league games for the team, scoring 65 goals, and was capped 10 times by Brazil. However, he, and other arguably world-class talents, such as Coutinho (not the ex-Liverpool one!), Pepe (sample quote: “I’m the greatest human striker in the history of Santos – because Pelé is from Saturn”, and even the legendary figure of Carlos Alberto, do not quite make the top three.

1) Pele

Choosing the number one really is an easy task because it can only be the incomparable Pele. The legend, who died almost a year ago, on the 22nd of December 2022, played over 650 games for Santos and, incredibly, banged in more than 640 goals (note that there are often discrepancies in Pele’s stats due to record-keeping at the time and what games and goals are included, for example unofficial matches and friendlies). He was a key part of the club’s most successful era and helped Santos win the South American equivalent of the Champions League in 1962 and 1963.

2) Neymar

Neymar is a controversial pick for second place because he “only” played for Santos 225 times and scored a “mere” 136 goals. And, of course, because the club have had so many exceptional players over the years. However, the man who also played for Barcelona and PSG was a key part of Santos’s win in the 2011 Copa Libertadores, was a great entertainer and, of course, surpassed Pele’s goal tally with his national side (79 and counting versus Pele’s total of 77).

3) Dorval Rodrigues

Dorval may have only played 13 times for Brazil but his impact with Santos should not be understated. A wonderful right-sided attacker, Dorval provided much of the firepower for Pele and was part of the same great side of the 1950s and 1960s. He played more than 600 games for the club and netted almost 200 goals, as well as serving up countless assists before assists were even a thing!