Santos and Flamengo are two of the most traditional, well-known football clubs in Brazil. They have been home to some of the greatest talents to emerge from this football-mad corner of the globe, and the likes of Pele and Zico will be synonymous with the success they enjoyed in the famous black-and-white stripes and rubro negro, respectively.
But this pair of sides, hailing from Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro respectively, the south-eastern corner of this gargantuan country that seems to swallow up so many of the success stories revolving around football, will go down in domestic football history for a very different reason altogether.
On a Wednesday night at the back end of July 2011, these two teams put on a show in Santos' tight, closely packed Vila Belmiro stadium that will never be forgotten, certainly by those who were in the terraces to witness it, those who were there to cover it and those on the pitch who, even as the game wore on throughout its 90 minutes, knew they were part of something that would go down in the annals of footballing time.
This is the story of Santos 4-5 Flamengo—the turnaround, the emotion, the tale of two craques—told by the folk fortunate enough to find themselves in the Sao Paulo coastal town six years ago.
"It was a game where you left the stadium wanting to applaud," said Ricardo Agostinho, a Santos fan who was at the Vila Belmiro that night. "You weren't even pissed off your team had lost a match that by all rights they should have won. You knew that you had just been part of something special."
NEYMAR BREAKS THROUGH
Clovis Vesco (Santos team doctor and masseur): A lot of the buildup to this game focused around the duel between Neymar, on our side, and Ronaldinho, who was playing for Flamengo. Ever since Neymar arrived at the club [in 2005], he had a technique and quality above his peers. He was in a group of three, alongside Paulo Henrique Ganso and Jean Chera, who were just different.
Vinicius Carlos Vieira (Flamengo fan living in Santos): Santos is a small town. Even before Neymar had made his debut for the first team, there was a lot of noise about him. And with the reputation Santos have for producing excellent young players from their academy, there was a lot of expectation on his shoulders once he reached the first team.
Adilson Barros (editor of Globo Esporte in Sao Paulo): The really big player to break through prior to Neymar was Robinho who, alongside another promising youngster, Diego, went on to win two Brazilian league titles with Santos, in 2002 and 2004. Neymar made his debut in the Campeonato Paulista [the Sao Paulo state championship] against Oeste, scoring his first professional goal for the club against Mogi Mirim, and the indications of superb talent were there.
Vesco: Neymar was not intimidated by a move to the first team. It was almost as if he had always been part of the group. He would bring music with him, which he would always be playing, and he arrived at the club with a happiness and readiness to join in. In terms of his body movement and style, he is very similar to Ronaldinho. The way he can shape himself, the comfort he feels on the ball. In terms of dribbling ability, he could perhaps be compared to Garrincha, but he plays far more centrally and is far more of a goal threat. If you were to compare him to another Brazilian player, it would definitely be Ronaldinho.
Ted Sartori (journalist for Tribuna de Santos newspaper): Neymar arrived at Santos in 2005, when he was just 13 years old, and continued that tradition of great young players to have emerged from the club's academy system. The most recent was probably Gabigol [Gabriel Barbosa, currently at Italian club Internazionale].
Adilson Barros: It was only really in 2010 that he started to become the Neymar that he is known as today. He was the leading scorer in the 2010 Copa do Brasil [Brazilian Cup], which Santos won. Neymar scored in the first leg of the final, against Vitoria, and his partnership with Paulo Henrique Ganso was beginning to look excellent.
Ted Sartori: When he was coming through and breaking into the first team, the coach at Santos was Vanderlei Luxemburgo, who didn't give a great number of chances to Neymar. He even gave him the nickname file de borboleta [literally translated, this means "butterfly fillet"] due to his skinny and slight frame. But when you did see him play, you knew that he would be something really special.
THE PUSKAS GOAL
In early 2012, Neymar was awarded the 2011 Puskas Award for scoring the greatest goal in that calendar year. The goal was netted in the Santos v Flamengo game, giving his side a 3-0 lead after only 25 minutes. Picking up the ball close to the halfway line, the sprightly forward waltzed past two opposing players, exchanging passes with Borges before jinking past Ronaldo Angelim and lifting the ball deftly over the oncoming Felipe.
Vinicius Carlos Vieira: It's a goal that you can't put into words. As he picked the ball up and ran towards goal, it looked as if he had lost the ball twice, but the sharpness of his mind and speed of his feet were on another level. The only word I can think of is "incredible," and that by no means does it justice.
Ted Sartori: Being inside the stadium and focusing on the game, I don't think that you were really aware of just how good the goal was until you watched it on TV afterwards. It was almost too good to appreciate in real time, if that makes sense. But without doubt it showed Neymar at his best—he had just returned from the Copa America [in Paraguay] and had not played in the Campeonato Brasileiro that season until this game. It was some way to announce yourself.
Vieira: The way he glided past players was pure genius; it's as simple as that. He was unstoppable that night—his assist for Santos' second goal of the night, scored by Borges, was made after losing his footing and falling to the ground, yet he somehow had the thought process and ability to guide the ball to the feet of his teammate. It was just fantastic.
Adilson Barros: Sitting in the press box, we all looked at one another. Did that really just happen? I spoke to Neymar afterwards about the goal, and he said that when he was running at goal, he wasn't thinking about anything at all. The only thing going through his mind was to get closer to the goal. Even Neymar can't explain how he did it; no one else will be able to either.
Ricardo Agostinho: The goal was pure genius. Remember that Neymar wore the No. 11 shirt for Santos. The No. 11 is always a player of great technical quality, like Pepe [played for Santos for 15 years, as well as the Brazilian national side, where he won the 1958 and 1962 World Cup titles]. Neymar is, and always was, so comfortable on the ball, and he just kept moving forward with it. There really was no other goal like it.
Neymar finally left Santos for Catalan giants Barcelona in the summer of 2013. With stories circulating around the Brazilian star for a couple of years prior to his transfer, it was arguably this game that pushed him to the very front of global transfer gossip.
Ricardo Agostinho: We knew in 2011 that he was already on his way out; he had already negotiated with Barcelona. Real Madrid made an offer, but he didn't want to go there.
Adilson Barros: In 2011, there was already an agreement in place to sell Neymar to Barcelona, so I don't know if this particular game accelerated his transfer. It had already been decided and was only confirmed publicly later. In 2012, Real Madrid came in with a bid of 45 million euros, but of course, it had to be turned down.
Agostinho: His last game for Santos was the opening round of the 2013 Campeonato Brasileiro [in early May] at the Estadio Mane Garrincha in Brasilia, and to be honest, there were no complaints from Santos fans when he left. We knew he was different and needed to play on the biggest stage. There is no bigger stage than Barcelona. I am 48 years old and go to at least 40 Santos games every year. I have seen several greats pull on the famous Santos shirt; there aren't many that are on the same level as Neymar or who are capable of reaching the heights that he surely will in his career.
Ted Sartori: 2011 was an incredible year for Neymar. It was when he started to appear more in the international reckoning and, with a player of that talent, it is only natural that transfer gossip and interest from other clubs will intensify the more exposure he has. He went to the 2011 Copa America as well as the 2012 Olympic Games in London.
Adilson Barros: Neymar always wanted to play for Barcelona. His ambition was to play with the likes of Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Lionel Messi—at that time, Barcelona was the greatest club team in the world, and Neymar wanted to be a part of that. His playing style is better suited to Barcelona as well. He plays more freely, he likes to roam, he fits in well there and, as I said, it had all been decided long before it was officially announced that he would be leaving Santos for Barcelona.
Sartori: He was fast becoming an international star while he was still at Santos. Flamengo were one of the strongest sides in 2011 and he was fantastic in that match. He could have left earlier but waited until 2013, when he was 21 years old. He had received a larger offer previously from Real Madrid, but he always wanted to play for Barcelona.
THE FANS' VIEW
Vinicius Carlos Vieira: I'm a Flamengo fan but I live in Santos, so whenever my team loses I get a lot of s--t thrown at me in the street the next day. The game was at Vila Belmiro which, because of its small size and shape of the stadium, can generate a lot of noise and a fantastic atmosphere when it's full. Because Flamengo, the biggest team in Brazil, were in town, the stadium was full. When Santos made it 3-0 after only 25 minutes, I almost gave up and went home. Believe me, there were a lot of Flamenguistas [Flamengo fans] who were thinking the exact same thing. But then things started to go our way.
Agostinho: When we went 3-0 up so early, I thought we could score five or six. The way we started that game, it really looked like that was a possibility. In the first half, Ronaldinho did almost nothing. Yes, he scored the first goal for Flamengo to make it 3-1, but that was down to the mistake by [Santos goalkeeper] Rafael Cabral.
Vieira: [Santos midfielder] Elano, who had missed a penalty the week before [for Brazil, against Paraguay in the Copa America; Brazil were eliminated after losing a penalty shoot-out] and he stepped up to take the penalty for Santos. We had already pulled two goals back, through Ronaldinho and Thiago Neves, and the momentum of the game was swinging our way. Elano had the chance to give that momentum back to Santos. He chipped his penalty down the middle of the goal and [Flamengo goalkeeper] Felipe just stood there and caught it. That moment, for me, changed the game. Santos heads dropped and, by half-time, we were level. Santos took the lead again early in the second half, but Ronaldinho took it to another level.
Agostinho: Elano missing the penalty was huge. Borges, who had already scored two by that point, should have taken it. But Elano had missed a penalty for Brazil the week before and wanted the ball. It was in the second half that Ronaldinho really took the game away from us. That free-kick showed what he was all about. To put it under the wall with such confidence and precision showed the talent of the guy. For me, what really showed through that night was his experience. Neymar was electric and scored a magical goal. But Ronaldinho waited for his moment. Ultimately, he won the game for Flamengo. There's no denying that fact.
Vieira: When we scored the fifth to make it 5-4, there were still around 10 minutes left. We could have added one or two more; by then Santos had given up. I thought there was going to be trouble outside the stadium afterwards; the police were telling us not to celebrate.
Agostinho: Even though we lost, this is an unforgettable game. It had everything. Ronaldinho and Neymar was the obvious angle but, as Santos fans, there was the return of [Flamengo forward] Deivid to Vila Belmiro. He was successful with Santos over two periods; he scored a hell of a lot of goals for us. When he scored for Flamengo that night, he didn't even want to celebrate.
But despite the fact that we ended up losing the game, I, and probably the majority of Santos fans who were at Vila Belmiro that night, did not leave the stadium upset. What we had seen was a show. It was art, it was theatre. This is how we all want to see football played. The game was an absolute roller coaster. I remember watching Neymar that night, and the memory is still vivid. He always wanted the ball.
Ronaldinho Gaucho signed for Flamengo in early 2011 from Italian giants AC Milan. It was considered a massive coup for the Rio outfit; the two-time FIFA World Player of the Year had largely been expected to join boyhood club Gremio. His arrival at Gavea sparked a huge furore; Flamengo, widely considered to be the biggest and most widely supported club in Brazil, now had a star name worthy of their shirt who could catapult them to the forefront of South American club football, and even perhaps beyond.
In what was considered his greatest game in a Flamengo shirt, his hat-trick, including two second-half strikes, rescued Flamengo from 3-0 down, to turn the game on its head. His second goal, a free-kick 20 metres out, passed under the wall and into the bottom right-hand corner of the net, was a thing of beauty.
Vinicius Carlos Vieira: A lot of the Brazilian media is focused on Sao Paulo, so perhaps Ronaldinho didn't receive as much attention as Neymar at that time. It did seem, though, that all the press were interested in were scandals about Ronaldinho. He was playing well at Flamengo prior to the game against Santos, but he wasn't necessarily receiving the credit he deserved for it. That game, his hat-trick, his free-kick, his ability to turn the game on its head...it was a continuation of what he had already been doing, of what Flamenguistas had already been seeing. It wasn't a great surprise to us, who had been following his career at the club properly, that he did it.
Ted Sartori: It was a fantastic duel between Ronaldinho and Neymar as well as an epic contest between two strong sides. Ronaldinho arrived at Flamengo charged with returning the club to the summit and keeping them there. Santos, and Neymar in particular, were on a high, but you have to say that the veteran won in the end.
Adilson Barros: This game was almost like the return of Ronaldinho, the player that we knew and loved, who represented Brazil. He was hitting those heights we had all become accustomed to seeing when he was at Barcelona. His free-kick was absolutely fantastic. You also need to remember that it was him that won the free-kick, spinning away from Edu Dracena before drawing the foul from Arouca, and his cool-headedness and ability in scoring the way he did was top-class.
He was re-energised, looking for the ball, wanting the ball. He seemed to be playing every position that night; he wanted to show that he was still the best. He is an artist, and when he is playing his best, he can be unpredictable, more so than Neymar. That night showed Brazil and the world that Ronaldinho was not finished as a footballer.”
There were perhaps 20,000 inside Vila Belmiro that night. Every fan will have their memories from that game, stored away, never to be forgotten, to be told time and time again. But what about the players on the pitch, as the madness, the drama, the emotion, unfurled itself around them?
Arouca (Santos midfielder): I can't remember if I have played in a more exciting, emotional game than that one. But we didn't leave the pitch upset at not having won, despite having taken a 3-0 lead. Today, analysing the game in all its context, it was a fantastic game of football. Perhaps one of the best in the history of the Campeonato Brasileiro.
Leo Moura (Flamengo right-back): This match was different from any other I have played in. Taking into consideration the game in its entirety, it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The match was at the home of Santos; on the other side of the pitch was Neymar, who was in great form, but even so we managed to turn the game around and win. It was sensational. At the same time as you think the match is lost, this day was just different. We also had a very good team, and we knew that we could change the scenario.
Renato Abreu (Flamengo midfielder): These are two of the biggest teams in Brazil, and were possibly the two best at that time. There were a lot of great players on the pitch besides Ronaldinho and Neymar. We [Flamengo] had Thiago Neves, Deivid, Leo Moura. They [Santos] had Ganso, Borges, players that you can't afford to take your eye off.
In addition, we were undefeated at that time; we were on a run that had lasted about three months. In terms of preparation, we treated this game just like any other. The coach [Vanderlei Luxemburgo] sent us on to the pitch with a game plan and we stuck to it. When Santos made it 3-0 after only 25 minutes, we looked at each other. We didn't know what had happened, but we didn't deviate from our plan. When we were only 2-0 down we missed two great chances to get back into the game.
We knew that more chances would come, and there was still so much time left on the clock. That was proven even as the first half wore on. Rafael failed to hold a cross from Luiz Antonio, and Ronaldinho scored our first. Then Thiago Neves quickly got a second, and all of a sudden we were back in the game. After Elano's missed penalty and Deivid's equaliser, we went in level at the break.
Arouca: At half-time in the dressing room, we were attentive. We had conceded the equaliser right before the break, and Flamengo were becoming more productive. We needed to get back to the tempo we had started the match and, soon after the restart, scored a goal and once again we had the advantage. Unfortunately, we ended up wasting it. Congratulations to Flamengo, who played a fantastic match, but it was also down to the errors that we committed. We very much wanted to win that duel and, for the majority of the match, it was in our hands.
Leo Moura: At half-time, having found the equaliser, our thoughts were on maintaining focus and not ceding any more space to Santos. But we conceded a fourth goal with just five minutes of the second half gone. But Ronaldinho was fantastic that night and we turned the game around.
Renato Abreu: Luxemburgo told us to be more attentive, but also demanded more creativity. That was my job, alongside Ronaldinho and Neves. But, for me, it was key when Elano missed that penalty. Santos fans turned on him, started booing him, and we used that to our advantage. We started to provoke him on the pitch.
The momentum was now with us, and Ronaldinho's free-kick helped put us on the front foot. It was one of those moments. At that time, Flamengo had three free-kick takers—me, Ronaldinho and Neves—but it was Ronaldinho who always had first option. Standing over the free-kick I said to Ronaldinho, "So, Gaucho, what are you going to do?" He just looked at me, he was focused, he already knew exactly what he was going to do. If you look at his celebration, he is saying, "Te falei!" ["I told you so!"]
That Flamengo team was full of leaders, but he was our reference. After the game, there were some celebrations, but we couldn't go too wild—it was a midweek game right in the middle of the league campaign. But we did ask Luxemburgo to allow us a pizza and a couple of beers just to relax, and he obliged. After all, we had won a game that would go down in history in such incredible fashion. Of course, there was a lot of attention on the Ronaldinho and Neymar angle, but this match wasn't just about two great players.
It was about two great teams. Ronaldinho was already established in the world of football; he had won everything with Barcelona and been the best player on the planet twice. Neymar was the new guy, still trying to prove himself at that point.
On a personal level, I played close to 250 games for Flamengo. In terms of a spectacle, a show, this game was the most striking. It was breathtaking to be a part of. There are other games that I remember fondly from my career—a 2-0 win for Flamengo against Defensor in the Copa Libertadores, my final game as a professional with Santos in 2013—but this is the one that really stands out.”
The game made nationwide news around Brazil and reverberated in the headlines and on television bulletins for days afterwards. In the Brazilian domestic calendar, with games crammed in to include state championships, national leagues, the Brazilian cup and continental tournaments, this singular event dominating discussions and air time was almost unprecedented. Meanwhile, inside Vila Belmioro, it was a hell of a task trying to describe the game in real time for those inside the stadium.
Ted Sartori: Everything was happening so fast. You are trying to keep track of all that is going on, but you can't tear your eyes away from the pitch for fear of missing something. Those first 45 minutes in particular were frantic and, while it is wild and exciting for a fan, it is something of a nightmare for a reporter. I kept having to change the tone of my report every few minutes. But, looking back now, without doubt, it was the best game I have covered.
Adilson Barros: I wrote the match report for Globo Esporte that evening, and I would have to say that this was the best match that I have written about. It is difficult to think of a comparison—perhaps Santos v Internacional, in the 2012 Copa Libertadores, but that was more in terms of a fantastic solo performance from Neymar. Santos won 3-1 that night and he scored a hat-trick, and that certainly is a contender for his best performance in a Santos shirt. But this match, just for the pure spectacle, the angles which continuously changed throughout the game, this one has to be the best.
Sartori: I have been working as a sports writer for the Tribuna de Santos newspaper for 14 years now, and I cannot think of any game that comes close to this one in terms of real-time reporting and the way it dominated the sporting agenda afterwards. For the next three or four days it continued to be the biggest story for our newspaper, despite the fact there were other matches taking place and a fresh round of league matches that weekend. This was the game that took all the headlines.
Adilson Barros: The story of the game will go down in history—it had the young Neymar, missed penalties, Ronaldinho—you couldn't write a better story if you wanted to. Afterwards, we spent weeks talking about the game. No one had seen anything like it, and it made headlines around the world. Afterwards, Spanish press came to watch Neymar train.
Clovis Vesco: The club gained a lot of media attention in the days following the match. I work here at the training centre every day, I arrive at around 8 a.m. every morning, and normally the local press pack come to cover the training sessions and speak with the players. After the match against Flamengo, those numbers increased dramatically. International press came to cover Santos too; I remember Spanish and Japanese journalists and photographers coming here to cover the story. There were over 40 who came here just to watch and speak with Neymar.
While the stars of the show were Neymar and Ronaldinho, there is one very prominent figure who has almost been forgotten, not only from this game but from football altogether: Paulo Henrique Ganso. Breaking into the first team at the same time as Neymar, he was thought to be the next great Brazilian playmaker, the heir to the famed No. 10 yellow shirt. As his career has veered somewhat off-track, there are several theories abounding as to why that may be.
Clovis Vesco: Ganso's great year was in 2010, and it looked like he was set to go on and progress in the way we at the club thought he would. Ganso and Neymar complemented each other wonderfully on the pitch. When he was breaking into the first team, the expectation was that the side would be built around him. But, as a professional, he has had to undergo two operations on a ligament injury; the first wasn't successful unfortunately, and he has not looked the same player since.
Adilson Barros: Ganso's greatest moment was the 2010 Campeonato Paulista. It's true that many people considered him to be better than Neymar, and he was still an important player when Santos won the Copa Libertadores in 2011. But in addition to those two serious knee ligament injuries, what is forgotten is that he had already undergone one operation when he was playing in the U20 team. To have three knee operations by your mid-20s is devastating for a sports career.
Vinicius Carlos Vieira: Ganso and Neymar reminded me of Diego and Robinho, another great Santos partnership from the early 2000s. Without doubt Ganso could have been a great No. 10, but perhaps it had something to do with his personality. He reached such heights when he was young, he didn't learn other roles the way Diego did and has done throughout his career. For example, when Ganso loses the ball, you never see him running back to try and retrieve it.
Ricardo Agostinho: What you have to remember is that at the time he was starting to get in the first team, Ganso was regarded as better than Neymar. He was more mature, Neymar argued with Dorival [the Santos coach in 2010] and it looked as if Ganso would go on to reach stardom. But it must be difficult, psychologically, to return from such long-term setbacks as Ganso suffered.
Adilson Barros: It could have worked out differently for him. He had wanted to go to Europe earlier than Neymar. He was already showing his potential in 2009, and he was eager to test himself in Europe. Now it seems that he is lacking a little direction in his career. When people talk about Ganso, they say he would have been a great player in the 1970s, when the game was played at a slower pace. He has a serenity and vision about him, but whether he still has the ability to execute what his brain is telling him to do is uncertain.
Ted Sartori: There's no doubt about it: Ganso was a beautiful player. He had a class about him, he played the game at a slower pace and had the ability to slow the game down around him. He dictated the pace of the game, in a similar way to Zinedine Zidane, pulling the strings from behind the front line. But perhaps Ganso thought he was better than he actually was. I hope he can recover his form because he could have been one of the greats, but I think now that his time has gone.
Agostinho: As a Santos fan who knows the club and people there well, there have been suggestions that Ganso became jealous of Neymar, that Ganso was left behind. He has certainly never played as well as he did in 2010 and, by the end of his spell at Santos in 2012, before he moved to Sao Paulo, there was a lack of commitment from the player. There is now a chance he could return to the club, but I doubt he will ever be the player we all hoped he could be.