Santos Suffers Historic, Agonizing Relegation For First Time In 111 Years
1:25 PM EST on December 7, 2023
In Brazilian soccer, there is an elite tier of clubs that are always entrenched at the top of the Campeonato Brasileiro Série A: Palmeiras, Corinthians, Flamengo, São Paulo, and Santos define soccer excellence in the biggest country in South America. Prior to Wednesday, Palmeiras and Corinthians were the only teams from that group to have ever tasted the bitter pill that is relegation to the second division. Well, now we can add Santos to the list, as the São Paulo state-based side, with eight domestic titles and three Copa Libertadores trophies to its name, ended its dreadful 2023 season with a 2-1 loss to Fortaleza that sealed its 17th-place finish and demotion to Série B.
Heading into Wednesday's match, Santos was in decent enough shape, if one is to ignore that it should never be fighting for its life on the final day. With 43 points, and Vasco de Gama sitting at 42 and Bahia at 41, all Santos had to do was beat Fortaleza at home and it would safely, if bleakly, live to fight another day in the top flight. It could also hope that third-place Atlético Mineiro tied or beat Bahia, or that Vasco de Gama lost to Bragantino. Neither of those things happened, as Bahia won 4-1 against a Mineiro team that had little to play for, and Vasco de Gama won on a late Serginho goal. So, Santos had to win or go home, as even a draw would place it behind Vasco de Gama and tied with Bahia, but losing out on tiebreakers.
Santos had its chances to ease the pressure. In the fifth minute, Julio Furch had a nice move to the touchline and cut a pass across to Marcos Leonardo, whose sliding shot was saved off the line (Furch was also found to be offside, anyway). In the 26th, Venezuelan Yeferson Soteldo hit a long ball that landed at the feet of Gabriel Inocêncio, but the Brazilian could not beat the charging goalkeeper. It was Fortaleza, though, that struck first at the Estádio Urbano Caldeira, as the 10th-placed side scored in the 39th minute. A failed corner kick for Santos set up a wild pass from Tomás Pochettino, who found a somehow all-alone Marinho at the halfway line—Santos defender Joao Basso completely lost his mark on the Fortaleza attacker—and the former Santos forward made no mistake with the finish, nor with his taunting celebration of his old fans.
With that, Santos entered halftime down one and its hopes dwindling. At half in the other game, Bahia was up 2-1 and looking dangerous, while Vasco de Gama was up 1-0 in a tenser affair. At that point, Santos was out of the running, and it was clear, as that realization seemed to energize Santos coming out of the break. Just 13 minutes into the second half, a corner from Lucas Lima landed at the head of center back Messias, who rocketed it into the goal, sending the home crowd into delirium.
The task was then simple for Santos: roughly 30 minutes, plus stoppage time, to get a winner and clinch its place in Série A next season. Simple does not mean easy, though, and Santos failed to capitalize on its momentum by scoring that all-important winner. With time running out, it would be Fortaleza that would drive the final nail in the coffin, and a brutally late one at that. With Santos attacking, goalie João Paulo pushed up into the midfield, but a misplaced pass led to Fortaleza's Juan Lucero ripping a long-range shot into the empty net, giving the visitors a 2-1 lead just before the final whistle.
With that goal, and all hope lost, Santos had nothing to do but reckon with its failures this season. The immediate aftermath told the story better than any words could, as both players and fans looked catatonic and despondent. Soccer means the world to so many people, and the tears flowed accordingly for this proud club:
Those tears turned to fury pretty quickly, as fans tried to storm the field to accost the players, who retreated to the locker room as quickly as possible. Outside of the stadium, cars and buses were set on fire by angry fans.
This was not an Oh well, we'll get them next season-type of failure. It was a The sky is falling and we are all burning up-type of catastrophe, for club and crowd, and the only question now is what happens when the smoke passes. The answer to that is complicated by another question: How did this happen?
A club like Santos has a tightrope to walk, given its status both in Brazil and in the global soccer landscape. It is a juggernaut, and so triumph is expected. But Santos also knows that its stars will eventually, and sometimes prematurely, make a move to Europe. The list of former Santos players doubles as an inventory of some of the best and most productive Brazilian players, both historically and recently: Pelé, Neymar, Robinho, Carlos Alberto, Rodrygo, Alex Sandro ... it really is a lot of talent. Even below that top tier of players, Santos constantly pumps out youth talent for other, richer clubs to scoop up.
Eventually, that type of business can catch up with a club, when the rate of exodus outpaces the intake of new stars-in-the-making. There are many fingers to point: The club has been in serious debt since a spending spree that led to the 2020 Libertadores final; it has had six managers since the start of the 2022 season; the club had the worst defense in the league. The reality is that no king lives forever, though, and a horrible stretch of form in the summer—two wins between May 14 and Sept. 14, a run of 17 matches with just 11 points—set the table for this historic collapse. The only thing that could make this worse if it becomes less of a horrifying blip for Santos, and more of a continued stretch of failure. Anything less than a convincing return to the top flight after next season would help forever shift the balance of power away from the eight-time champions. No pressure.