The Santos FC Academy Way

The Santos FC Academy Way

This feature is part of The Academy Way

WHEN THE TITANIC HIT AN ICEBERG AND BEGAN ITS DESCENT into the punishingly icy waters off Newfoundland on 14 April, 1912, the world’s most ostentatious symbol of luxury and power was doomed before it had completed its maiden voyage. By rights, it should have gone on to be a shining trophy of sheer engineering muscle and design; the stellar vessel in the White Star Line fleet, it had attracted the very crème de la crème of high society, and was billed as ‘unsinkable’.

It was an age when feats of engineering were seen as trophies of endeavour, but beneath the surface there were cracks that had been papered over. It is well documented how lifeboats could only accommodate a small portion of the passengers on board, but there were other basic flaws. It was madness to travel at such speed in waters that could contain icebergs large enough to sink the vessel, not to mention Captain Edward John Smith allegedly ordering the engines to be pushed to their limit in order to impress the expectant New York society with an early arrival.

As thousands succumbed to the freezing clutches of the North Atlantic, the birth of an equally stellar and pioneering enterprise took place on the exact same day. In the relatively small port city of Santos, 50 miles from South America’s largest metropolis of São Paulo, the eponymous football club was established that, against all the odds, would go on to become one of the most glamorous and popular brands in world football. With a population twenty times inferior, at a conservative estimate, to its local cousin, Santos in one sense has no right to compete with the ‘big boys’ up the road – Corinthians, Palmeiras and São Paulo being the three major clubs from the larger city – but it does, for one simple reason: youth.

From Pepe to Coutinho, Neymar to Robinho, the roll-call of talent to come out of the world famous academy is stunning, but the crown jewel is without doubt O Rei, Edson Arantes do Nascimento: Pelé. It is impossible to measure quite how seismic an impact he has made since he first appeared as a fresh-faced 15-year-old, and his example set a precedent that has been followed to this day. What makes the consistent world class production of youth all the more remarkable is that it was achieved in an age when major continental success was the main way to compete with more prestigious institutions in attracting new talent.

The fundamental identity attached to the club, and by association the academy, is a fluid and lightning-fast attacking brand of football. This has come from the high representation of home-grown youngsters in the first team hungry to impress the local crowds. Or more simply, it has come from goals. The club proudly proclaims to have scored over 12,000 times in its 103-year history, more than any other side has ever managed, which speaks volumes for the priorities and values that are held in such high esteem at the Estádio Urbano Caldeira. It therefore makes it a fitting stage for Pelé’s 1,283 strikes.

Whether the figures can be verified, or whether their validity can be accepted considering the inferior quality of the vast majority of opponents, is open for debate. Of that staggering figure, 526 came in friendlies and money-spinning world tours, but no matter – the ethos of the club was firmly entrenched by the end of the Pelé years. In fact, the reputation for entertainment began much earlier, as São Paulo-based Brazilian football journalist Euan Marshall explains: “Santos’s proud history predominantly comes from the 60s, although even then they already had a reputation for free-flowing, quick attacking football. In the 1920s they had some great teams, including in 1927 when their attack scored 100 goals in a 16-game season.”

Around the world, there are 92 academies that bear the name ‘Santos’, from Hamamtsu in Japan to Paraguay, South Korea and the US, many of which are essentially franchises. For a relatively small financial outlay and the license to use the famous black and white crest, the Santos brand is given huge global appeal, and the possibility to source the latest recruits from the widest possible network. Branding is everything in the modern world, especially in football, and despite their humble setting, Santos have some glamorous stars to point to when selling themselves. Most young street footballers want to score goals and attack, which is what the Brazilian game and Santos in particular offer.

Os Meninos de Vila – The Village Boys, as players of Santos are known – have their own youth training centre at the stadium with a study room, gym, dining facilities and accommodation as well as social assistance and psychologists, all designed to provide as rounded an education, both in football and the outside world. In 2006, a new training centre was inaugurated for the younger age groups in the Saboó district of the city with the two training pitches named after shining graduates of the system from a decade ago, Robinho and Diego. Potential recruits as young as 10 are invited to send in YouTube videos demonstrating their abilities, and if invited to join the academy, they are greeted by a study centre overlooking the pitch they hope to grace at the Vila Belmiro, as the Estádio Urbano Caldeiro is known, with a futsal school to hone their technique.

Paulo Freitas is a Brazilian correspondent for Sky Sports, and he exercised caution when describing the reputation of the academy to me: “I think it’s a good system and it allows Santos to punch above their weight,” he said, “but the system is sometimes overrated abroad, as they have produced many of the biggest names [like Robinho and Neymar] who are more visible. But that ignores the fact that other academies produce many quality players and often on a more consistent basis. They developed top players back in Pelé’s time, and then again in the early 1980s, and after that new quality players came in large numbers only in Robinho’s era and more recently Neymar’s era. The periods between each generation coincided with Santos failing to make an impact on Brazilian football.”

The link between youth and success is a telling one; the club famously place a huge amount of faith in their home-grown stars at tender ages, which is commendable as an ethos, but in part it has been forced upon them by their financial constraints. Perhaps a more accurate description is necessary. Despite being named in 2013 by Brand Finance as the second most valuable club in Brazil worth $65 million, and with the fourth highest turnover in Brazilian football at $114 million, the following year a number of players including record €13 million record signing Leandro Damião took legal action to reclaim unpaid wages. Luis Álvaro Ribeiro had taken over as president in 2009, and although he oversaw the transition to the first team of Ganso, Gabriel Barbosa and Neymar, he also saddled the club with debt, partly after attracting outside investment to fund the current Barcelona forward’s mammoth wages.

It would be disingenuous, however, to take the credit away from the club for placing trust in their academy products. An internal byelaw dictates that 10% of the club’s revenues must be reinvested in the club’s youth system, which shows a responsible attitude towards safeguarding their production line. Churning out potentially world-class players does not only mean enriching their playing squad, but also boosting their future income streams when the inevitable horde of European scouts come sniffing.

“It’s all about developing a player and exporting him,” says Marshall. “It’s sustainable insofar as it has kept them afloat until today, but Santos don’t really have a choice. They have a tiny stadium in a small city which is right beside one of the biggest cities on earth in São Paulo, with its three huge clubs – Santos’s ability to produce players for sale is their biggest asset.”

In the warped world of football financial planning, being heavily in debt doesn’t necessarily mean a lack of investment either – just ask Leeds United fans about the Peter Ridsdale era. If the faith in the youngsters turned out to be misplaced, the reputation for attractive and successful football would begin to be eroded, which in turn would devalue Santos’s ability to attract the best talent; and so the downward spiral would continue.

Prior to Ribeiro’s presidency, a truly golden generation was born in testing circumstances that brought tangible success and nostalgia for earlier Peixe supporters, as Marshall recalls. “In 2003, in the middle of a financial pinch, they decided to not invest anything in signing players, and instead promoted lots of their under-20 team to cut costs. The plan worked perfectly and, led by Diego, Robinho and Elano, they ended up winning the national championship.”

As Latin America’s busiest sea port, it is of no surprise that football took hold in Santos, as the regular flow of foreigners and the predominantly working class population meant such a pursuit was always likely to prevail. The 18,000-capacity Estádio Urbano Cladeira is a traditional ground, and one of the oldest in Brazil, with the stands hunched over the touchlines to create an intimidating atmosphere.

When Colombian side Cucúta Deportivo visited, their player Canera claimed that “playing at the Vila Belmiro is like playing in hell”, and with the capricious intensity that Brazilian fans are famous for it could potentially unsettle youngsters coming through trying desperately to impress. It is a testament to the mental toughness of the class of 2003 that they not only survived the baptism of fire twelve years ago, but also that they all had reasonably fruitful careers in Europe, even if they never fully realised their phenomenal potential.

The basis of any successful academy is the strength of the coaches and their methodologies, but before they can have an effect, the unpolished diamonds have to be unearthed. In a country as vast as Brazil, this process relies on an extensive network of experienced and knowledgeable scouts, something which Freitas describes. “Many of scouts are former players, thus they have a better understanding of what is needed for a player to succeed. Pita [a playmaker from the late 70s and 80s] is the most significant coach to have worked at the club in recent years, while Zito [a full back in Pelé’s side in the 1960s] discovered the likes of Robinho, Neymar and Gabriel Barbosa. They don’t have a unique method, but futsal is a key part of this system as it allows the club to develop players who are fast, technically gifted and attack minded.”

Unfortunately, in such a pressure cooker environment where fast, direct results are essential to the very survival of the club, the patience of coaches can wane. The frantic rush to fast-track the latest pretender to the throne mixed with a tough financial atmosphere means many major clubs such as Guarani, Botafogo and Club América have seen their academies implode.

Where Santos stand out is their unrelenting faith, however forced it may be, in their home-grown talent to form the core of their playing squad. Even if not all of their graduates attract a lucrative move abroad, they will be gaining experience and providing a team at a minimal cost to the club itself. This can be a double-edged sword, however. “At one point in early 2014, Santos had 26 players from their youth setup in a 40-player squad,” Freitas says, “which shows both how good the youth players are, and how [the club] had to rely on them as their financial situation started to get worse.”

While it may seem cold and against the code of pastoral care in England, the harsh realities of existence for a city of just over 400,000 in a nation of over 200 million mean a gritty toughness is engendered. The timing of releasing a player into the first team environment is critical; get it right, and you could earn your employers millions of dollars by nurturing a superstar. Get it wrong, however, and you risk ruining a young boy’s career by allowing illusions of grandeur go to his head.

“Brazil doesn’t have a lot of youth coaches. Instead there are a lot of coaches in charge of youth teams that are looking for better jobs. It’s a real problem in Brazilian football, in fact; youth coaches are judged on results, which has a knock-on effect on the development of players,” says Marshall.

When Pelé and his teammates won back-to-back Copa Libertadores titles in 1962 and 1963, it was a glorious vindication of the Santos academy and its ethos as an era of domination at home and abroad beckoned. The Intercontinental Cup tie away against Benfica after the first of those titles, a magnificent 5-1 thrashing of Eusébio and company, was reckoned to be Pelé’s finest performance, but was followed by a decision that was a sign of things to come.

From 1965, the club declined to play in the Libertadores, instead choosing to embark on a manic tour of more profitable friendlies, earning their income as they simultaneously spread the word about their magical brand of entertainment. It was the only way they could offer wages sufficient enough to keep their prize assets, although even O Rei himself couldn’t resist the lure of New York Cosmos’ dollars at the end of his career. Glamour and money have forever been uneasy bedfellows for Santos, but for now the ship looks steady thanks to the ballast of youth.

By Andrew Flint. Follow @AndrewMijFlint