I was brought up on football. The very first football club, Hallam FC, used to play on a pitch at Sandygate, a half mile from our house, and I used to watch matches there, all mud and thud, with Bovril at half time. Anyone who like me, lived in Sheffield, had to swear allegiance to either Wednesday (blue and white stripes) or United (red and white stripes), who hated each other more than they hated any other team. . When I left Sheffield to live in London I was happy to see either Sheffield side do well – especially against one of the loud-mouthed London teams. But I knew that when I went back to Sheffield I’d be disembowelled if I admitted supporting them both.
At school I’d always stuck up for United, so United remain my Number One, but I stlll get a shiver of pride when I see the name Sheffield at the head of a good result.
The reason people love football is because those who play it well raise the game to something spellbinding. And there was no-one who did that better than Pele. He was a player who defined the best of the beautiful game. I don’t usually go in for hero-worship (except for Johnny Cash) but one of the highlights of all my travels was the opportunity to spend a day at Santos, learning about the club for whom Pele played and scored nearly 650 goals.
To see his coffin carried out and laid onto the pitch reminded me, with great force, of what that day at Santos had meant to me, the day I’d kicked a few balls around with one of their new young players wanting to be like him, on a pitch onto which the great man had turned out for so many years. And how impressed I’d been by their youth training system, and how amazed I was that the stadium only held 20,000.
So here, on the day Pele makes his last visit to the club, is my account of the day at Santos nearly 12 years ago.
Day 67, Santos, Brazil
The British brought something far more lasting to Brazil than the railways. They brought soccer. And Santos became one of the most famous soccer clubs in the world when, in the mid 1950s, they took on a promising fifteen-year-old named Edson Arantes do Nascimento, who under the less ponderous abbreviation Pelé became generally known as the greatest player in the history of the game. Despite tempting offers from Europe he continued wearing the black and white stripes of Santos FC until 1974, by which time he had scored 1,087 goals for the club in league and friendly games.
It was Pelé who later talent-spotted another great Santos legend, Robson de Souza, aka Robinho, who led them to the Brazilian championship title before moving on to Real Madrid, Manchester City and AC Milan. Their current home-grown discovery, Neymar, is considered one of the hottest prospects in soccer. In 2011, he was voted South American Footballer of the Year. He was nineteen years old.
This morning, with the storm past and a hot, humid day developing in downtown Santos, we make our way to the training ground to see how this comparatively small club, with a stadium capacity of less than 20,000, keeps turning out such fine players. The Centro de Treinamento is up towards the mountains, with a road and a railway on one side and a favela on the other. Beyond the wire fencing, a huge decomposing globe and other remains of Carnival floats are piled up. There is nothing very special about the training ground, no stands or flags or anything flashy. Every now and then one of the Santos buses, in black and white club livery, pulls in through the gates with another squad of young hopefuls aboard.
One of these is Pierre da Silva, a rangy thirteen-year-old whom everyone rates highly. This morning he’s here with his mother, father and kid sister Arianna, a bright and busy little force of nature whose mother describes her as an earthquake. Like adolescent teenagers everywhere, Pierre seems a little shy in the presence of the family, eyes down and shifting uneasily from one foot to the other. His parents are fiercely supportive.
They believe in him so much that they have reordered their lives around his future. His father Sebastião, who once harboured ambitions to be a professional himself, has stayed on in New York, where Pierre was brought up, whilst his mother Pilar, who’s Peruvian, has moved to Santos to be with her son during his training. Sebastião, a Brazilian who speaks English with a pronounced Bronx accent, has rented out most of the family home in New York and lives down in the basement. The hardest sacrifice of all is living apart, but Pilar is unrepentant.
‘I’m going to make it here,’ she says fiercely.
But she knows that it’s Pierre who is going to have to make it. And it’ll be another two years before they know if he will be one of the very lucky few to be offered a contract. The club pay Pierre 450 reais (£160) a week, which helps. He trains from seven o’clock every morning and goes to school in the afternoon.
All three of the training pitches are now in action. Some of the games are exercises as well. In one, in which they concentrate on positional play, the ball is never kicked at all but thrown from one player to the other. I ask Pierre whom he rates at the club. Neymar, his first choice, is not unexpected, but his second choice is a tiny boy who plays in the under 11s called Dodzinho or Dodo. He points him out to me, a boy with a Neymar haircut, his long shorts coming almost down to his ankles, making him look like a little old man. Dodo doesn’t fight for the ball, but when it comes to him he weaves and lays it off with precocious ease. And when Pierre strips down to his yellow vest and white shorts and joins in a game, I can understand why his parents think it’s all worthwhile. He’s a tall, fast, intelligent player, a winger with an accurate, powerful left foot.
Edi Marcel is one of the under 17s fitness coaches, married to a girl from Manchester. He explains the Santos philosophy. All-round support from the club for players from the earliest age. Schooling, medical check-ups, social assistants to help out with family problems, psychiatrists to help with behavioural problems. And on the pitch, the days are gone when the staff consisted of a manager and a trainer beside him with a sponge and a bucket. Santos provide doctors at every game as well as masseurs and physiotherapists. Despite their extensive and comprehensive youth programme, Edi estimates that on average only two players from each age group will stand a chance of a first-team place. That’s maybe ten out of 200.
I drive back into town and go with Pierre and Pilar and Sebastião to the hallowed ground on which he one day hopes to make his debut. Vila Belmiro is not an intimidating ground. It’s an intimate 18,000-seater, fitting snugly into an attractive neighbourhood of low, neatly painted stucco houses. There are cafés and restaurants on the corner opposite the main entrance selling scarves and photos and vests, and the only sign of rampant commercialism is a big likeness of Neymar on a shaving ad. Inside, the black and white colours of Santos are repeated in the seat patterns and the tiling, but there’s nothing grand about the place. Guido, the Brazilian youth team goalie, has come along with us so we can see Pierre take a few penalties. And then they roll the ball out to me, and all I can think of is that I can now say I’ve struck a penalty from the same spot as Pelé. Except that he scored. And so did Pierre.
Say farewell to Arianna, Pilar and Sebastião, who, for the next two years at least, have given up their life for their son. They are good people and I hope so much that I’ve been sharing the penalty spot not just with a ghost of the past, but with the spirit of the future. One thing’s for sure: from now on I shall be following Santos and Sheffield United.