Santos and Peñarol. Standing In the Footsteps of Giants.
The date was September 30, 1962, and the place was a stadium in the Belgrano district of Buenos Aires. There, two heavyweights were getting ready to end their momentous fight. The victor would walk away as king of South American club football. On one side stood the incumbent, Peñarol, led by their star forward, the great Alberto Spencer. In the other corner Santos of Brazil–spear-headed by the legendary Pelé–looked to take the throne. The Uruguayans were going for their third title in a row, which at that time accounted for all the titles in the existence of the newly formed competition called the Copa de Campeones. Only Santos stood in Peñarol’s way. The first leg at the Estadio Centenario had finished 2-1 in Santos’ favor, while the return leg in Brazil at the Vila Belmiro had ended with a controversial 3-2 win to the Uruguayans. Thus, the fate of trophy would be decided in a playoff on neutral ground. The stage was set at River Plate’s Estadio Monumental on that September day for the clash of titans.
However, something tipped the scales in favor of the Brazilians. An injured Pelé had not played in the first two games. With him, an excellent side became extraordinary. It wasn’t even a contest as Santos swept aside Peñarol 3-0. Pelé scored two of the goals. Peñarol were dethroned, and Santos collected their first ever trophy in the competition.
Many things have changed since that day forty-nine years ago.
Football is unrecognizable from back then. The money in the game has increased to exponential levels, and science has enhanced psychical preparation to levels that were previously unheard of. Most significantly, the shift of power in football has tilted to the Old World, leaving the rest of the world a rung below on the ladder. Long gone are the days when Santos and Peñarol could boast lineups that could go toe to toe with any team in the world. Yet, for all the changes that occurred, the canvas of history remains fixed to each club’s identity, and it will not suffer wear. Now, it is time for these famous clubs to vie for the title of South America’s best club once again, not in the Copa de Campeones, but under the tournament’s new name, the Copa Libertadores.
The fortunes of both clubs in the competition have differed since their last meeting on the grand stage. Santos won only one other title, while Peñarol acquired three. The last of these for the Uruguayans came in 1987, courtesy of a goal scored by their current coach, Diego Aguirre. The road to the current final was difficult for the two clubs. The cavernous mouth of elimination came within inches of claiming their campaigns on numerous occasions. Neither side came to this point by playing great football.
Peñarol succeeded in the most Uruguayan of ways, that is, through hard work, dedication, and with pinches of flair provided by Alejandro Martinuccio–admittedly an Argentinean. Santos were a bit different. Their defensive, counter-attacking football was a reflection of the philosophy of their coach, Muricy Ramalho. However, like Peñarol, they too had a resident magician to add some color in the form of the precocious talent of Neymar. The Brazilians hold the advantage on paper. Man for man, they outweigh the Uruguayans on any scale in terms of skills and endowment. This count for little. Peñarol’s road to the final lies littered with the carcasses of the favorites they encountered.
Tonight, the battle lines will be drawn anew as these prestigious clubs face each other for a second time in the final of the Copa Libertadores. From the moment the players enter the hallowed ground of the Estadio Centenario pitch, each footstep will resonant with the memory of that ancient battle between their illustrious former incarnations. The world will stand watch as a new chapter is written in this history-laden clash of South American giants.