SAO PAULO – Now celebrating its 100th year, Santos - the Brazilian soccer club that dominated the sport with Pelé in the 1960s - is still a force to be reckoned with.
Santos will turn 100 on Saturday with a rich history, including many major titles and remarkable victories that make the club one of the most successful in soccer. Few teams can match the Brazilian club's achievements both in Brazil and abroad.
While Barcelona is the team to beat in Europe, it is Santos which is attracting all the attention in the southern hemisphere. It's seen as one of the few clubs still able to play the "Jogo Bonito," or "Beautiful Game," which made Brazilian soccer famous around the world.
In 1998, Santos became the first team in the world to surpass the 10,000-goal mark, gaining recognition in the Guinness Book of World Records.
More than 1,000 of those goals were scored by Pelé.
"I have to thank God for allowing me to play for Santos," Pelé said. "I had the pleasure to help Santos promote Brazilian football across the world and today it's a team recognized everywhere. Santos is adored by everyone."
Pele introduced Santos to the world with his stellar play in the 1960s, and now it's "The Prince" Neymar, the future of Brazilian soccer, who is keeping the club in the spotlight.
Led by the 20-year-old sensation, Santos won last year's Copa Libertadores, Latin America's most important club competition. And this year the club is a top title contender again. It hadn't won the traditional tournament since the Pelé era.
"I've been seven years with the club and I only had wonderful moments, the first match, the first practice," Neymar said. "It's a great happiness and a great honor to represent this Santos team of so many outstanding players, including the King of Football."
Many say the joyful Neymar, with his Mohawk hairdo, has the potential to add many successful chapters to Santos' history. The club made an unprecedented effort to fend off offers from top Europeans clubs for Neymar, and is set to keep the nifty skills of the youngster until at least 2014, when he will be expected to lead Brazil to the World Cup title at home.
But he is unlikely to come close to matching Pelé's achievements with Santos.
Of the 1,281 career goals scored by Pelé, 1,091 of them came with Santos. He played for the club from 1956-1974, leading it to the Copa Libertadores championship in 1962 and '63, as well as the club world titles those years.
The first world title came in an 8-4 aggregate victory over Benfica, including a 5-2 win at the Estadio da Luz in the final match in Portugal. The second title came after Santos beat AC Milan — led by José "Mazzola" Altafini and Giovanni Trapattoni — in two out of three matches.
After losing the first match 4-2 at the San Siro, Santos earned a victory at the Maracana in front of more than 130,000 fans. Milan was up 2-0 at halftime, but Santos rallied with four answered goals to force a decisive third match, when more than 120,000 fans, again at Maracana, saw Santos win the title with a 1-0 victory.
Even though the club is based in the coastal city of Santos, the team was so popular that it easily packed the Maracana in Rio. Its tours around the world were popular too, helping increase the team's fan base everywhere.
"Many congratulations to Santos Futebol Clube on its centenary, one of the most famous names in football," FIFA president Sepp Blatter said on Twitter on Friday.
Santos twice scored 12 goals in official matches. Three times it reached 11 goals in a match and three other times it scored 10. In 1963, the Brazilian national team had eight Santos players on the squad.
Pelé led Santos to six of its eight national titles, and to 10 of its 19 Sao Paulo state championships. Santos is tied with rival Palmeiras for most national titles. Last year, Santos also won its first Brazilian Cup title and its 19th Sao Paulo state championship, a competition it has won four times in the past six years.
The team led by Pelé also had Pepe, Zito, Carlos Alberto Torres and Clodoaldo. More recently, Uruguay star goalkeeper Rodolfo Rodriguez and former Barcelona midfielder Giovanni played for Santos.
Now it's commanded by coach Muricy Ramalho — a four-time national league winner — and also has promising star Paulo Henrique Ganso and World Cup veteran Elano on the squad.
After Pelé stopped playing, Santos struggled and was not able to contend for several years, even in Brazil. It regained some of its glory only when current AC Milan striker Robinho appeared at the club as a youngster, helping it win the 2002 and the 2004 national titles.
Santos will mark its centenary anniversary by playing against 100 kids in a celebratory match at its Vila Belmiro stadium on Saturday. There will also be a match between squads formed by past Santos players.
Brazil's Congress honored the club's 100th birthday on Tuesday, and Neymar signed hundreds of autographs and took dozens of photos with congressmen at the special session marking the team's anniversary.
"I hope to have another great year so I can give many titles to these incredible fans who have always supported us," Neymar said.
Based on reporting by The Associated Press.