As the roars of "TRICAMPEÃO!" gradually subsided, and Pelé completed his lap around the Pacaembu turf, it was difficult not to be overcome by the historical significance of the whole thing. Make no mistake; last night was a wonderful one for Brazilian football. Santos sealed their third Copa Libertadores title (fully 48 years after their last), comfortably beating old rivals Peñarol at the Pacaembu.
Santos 2-1 Peñarol
After a goalless first leg in Uruguay, expectations were understandably high among Santistas; their side had displayed nigh-on impervious home form throughout the competition, and was boosted by the return of mercurial playmaker Paulo Henrique Ganso from injury. His inclusion meant that Danilo was shifted to rightback, whilst Léo got the nod over Alex Sandro on the left. Peñarol, meanwhile, were unchanged from the first leg.
The Peixe came flying out of the traps, looking to assert themselves in the opening minutes; Arouca and Durval should have done better with free headers, and Elano twice tested Sebastián Sosa from range. With the crowd urging them forward, Santos looked far more threatening than they had in the first leg; Ganso added his customary guile in midfield, whilst Arouca produced frequent surges from deep. Despite further chances for Zé Eduardo and Léo, however, Peñarol managed to reach half time without conceding.
The visitors, one imagines, would have been satisfied to shut up shop in the second period. Any such aspirations, though, were torn apart within minutes of the restart. Arouca, bounding forward like an attack dog let off his leash, swapped passes with Ganso, rode some feeble Peñarol challenges before poking the ball to Neymar on the left of the area. The youngster shaped to curl a shot into the far corner, but instead dragged the ball towards the near post in trademark fashion. Sosa, wrongfooted, couldn't keep it out. The Pacaembu exploded. Neymar, Santos' talisman during the competition, sunk to his knees in delirium, his name freshly inked into South American footballing folklore.
Muricy Ramalho's side were not finished there though. Midway through the half, Danilo marauded up the pitch from his fullback berth, skipped past his marker, and fired left-footed into the far corner. Any remaining nerves within the stadium were instantly settled; another golaço from one of the meninos da vila! Santos, by that stage, were dominant, although Peñarol did manage a consolation goal; Durval turning into his own net in the 80th minute. The hosts came close to extending their lead in the dying moments - Neymar hit the post, and the hapless Zé Eduardo headed wide from roughly 50cm out - but two goals proved sufficient.
The final whistle blew, prompting ecstatic cele... oh, hang on. Let me start that one again. The final whistle blew, prompting an ugly bout of fistycuffs between players and the staff of the two clubs. Boys, it seems, will be boys, especially in South America. Eventually, when all the toys had been gathered back into the relevant prams, the proper post-match regalement began. Santos players lifted the (improbably cumbersome) Libertadores trophy, and Pelé (dressed, incidentally, in a dapper red jacket) was wheeled out to add some gravitas. Somewhere amidst the melee was a grinning Muricy Ramalho; the most succesful Brazilian club coach of recent times finally picked up the continental crown that had previously eluded him.
The victory, though, belonged to everyone; to the battle-hardened Durval and Edu Dracena; to the emergent Danilo and Rafael; to Elano and Léo, who added experience; to the hard-running Arouca, Adriano, and Zé Eduardo; to the visionary Ganso; and, perhaps most of all, to Neymar, who grew into a footballer of international quality during the course of the competition. This title will live long in his memory, and in the hearts all those who follow Brazilian football. Parabéns Santos, tricampeão da Libertadores!
(Photo credits; (1) Vanderlei Almeida, (2) Reuters, (3) Marcos Riboli.)