RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - There are many reasons this most unusual of seasons should have been a disappointment for Santos but the club famous for fielding Pele and Neymar are instead preparing for glory in Saturday’s Copa Libertadores final against Palmeiras.
As in most places, the COVID-19 pandemic has played havoc with football in South America, with the Sao Paulo state championship halted for four months and the Libertadores, South America’s equivalent of Europe's Champions League, stopped for six. But things were even more turbulent for Santos.
Club president Jose Carlos Peres was impeached and removed from office in November, hiring a foreign coach - Portuguese Jesualdo Ferreira - proved a failure and there were financial difficulties that are all too common in Brazilian football.
There was also outrage from sponsors and fans at the signing of Santos' former player Robinho, who had been found guilty of rape in Italy. He is appealing and the case is still open.
The deal with the veteran forward was cancelled but the damage to the club's reputation was considerable.
Nevertheless, the team has surprised fans and pundits by reaching the Libertadores final where they hope to emulate the success of Pele and Neymar and win the trophy for a fourth time.
The current squad may not have the swashbuckling flair of 2003 and 2011, their most recent finals appearances when they finished as runners-up and champions respectively, and they lack a headline name such as Robinho, Diego or Neymar.
But coach Cuca, who led a Ronaldinho Gaucho-inspired Atletico Mineiro to the Libertadores title in 2013, has fashioned his motley crew of youngsters and old hands into a solid side.
Winger Marinho has been one of the standouts, classy defender Lucas Verissimo will leave for Benfica after the final, teenage striker Kaio Jorge is attracting attention from Europe, and 1.60-metre tall Venezuelan Yeferson Soteldo is capable of winning any game with moments of unpredictability.
Santos beat three former Libertadores champions on their way to Saturday's all-Brazilian showpiece, including a commanding 3-0 aggregate victory over Boca Juniors in the semi-finals.
“I think everything we’re achieving now is the reward of our hard work since the start of the year,” Marinho told fifa.com.
“We’ve built a family here that, football aside, is amazing. Every player believes in each other. Out on the pitch we’re a family and a team.
"We’re enjoying a magnificent moment at the club and I hope we can realise our goals at the end of this season.”
(Reporting by Andrew Downie; Editing by Ken Ferris)