Pele, Robinho, Neymar: Lightning strikes thrice

Word in Santos is that lightning doesn’t strike twice.

However, the locals are pretty sure that Vila Belmiro has now been hit a third time by the atmospheric electricity discharged by the gods of the beautiful game.

The first phenomenon occured 50 years ago, when a small boy from Minas Gerais nicknamed Gasolina (Portuguese word for gas) first arrived to practice with Santos’ big boys. Less than a year later, at the 1958 World Cup in Sweden, the world was introduced to Pelé.

Almost four decades passed before the second bolt came smacking. A skin-and-bone forward, born and bred in Santos, was whisked from the youth team by coach Leão to play in the 2002 Brazilian Championship.

Dazzling the whole country, Robinho helped guide the club to its first modern-era national title – which they would win again in 2004. Pelé’s heir, in his own words.

Pele, circa 1960

And now, once again, Santos have another new star. It's the same old story: a young man who's barely left his nappies, a walking skeleton, the good son of a humble family. The name is Neymar. Remember it. 

Santos fans don't doubt that he's destined for greatness. Neymar, who has only recently turned 17, has been considered the next big thing for several years. Pelé and Robinho have been watching him closely – getting his shot at the big time was merely a matter of time.

So when FourFourTwo was selecting the South American wonderkids for the April special issue - in shops now - Neymar had not played a single game in Santos' first team.

But the starlet's opportunity to shine came soon after. Coach, Marcio Fernandes had already announced his plans to call the young ace up. But he was fired and quickly replaced by talented young gaffer Vagner Mancini, who didn’t plan on delaying Neymar's debut Ã¢Â€Â“ if anything he brought it further forward.

Neymar was named as a substitute on March 7, in a Saturday night game against Oeste. The 20,000 fans jam-packed in the Pacaembu stadium in São Paulo were chanting his name even before kick-off. I’ve never seen such an ovation for a player who had yet to play a professional match.

He came on in the 59th minute and changed the game – from a boring 0-0 to an exciting 2-1 win. Neymar’s smooth passing and raw dribbling skills are very, very similar to a young Robinho.

“I love being compared to him. Who wouldn’t?” asks the new hero.

The following Thursday, in a home game against Paulista, gaffer Mancini kept his gem on the bench again. “Last game he was decisive and turned the game for us. But he’s still developing. Now he’s our top forward threat, but I want him to come in step by step,” he said.

Neymar heard his name chanted by the fans until he was thrown on in the second half with Santos trailing 1-0. And, once again, he changed the pace of the game. The home side managed to salvage a draw with a Roni goal. But by now the kid was ready. Mancini had reached the point of no return.

Robinho stars for Santos, 2003

Last Sunday, Neymar started... and scored the last in Santos' 3-0 victory over Mogi Mirim in São Paulo.

He celebrated by punching the air, Pelé’s trademark. But it was a double tribute – to Pelé, of course, and to Neymar’s deceased grandfather Ildemar. He had the King as his idol. And now the King is a fan of his grandson.

“It was a trip down to memory lane. The kid who left home at 17, same age as Neymar, coming to practice at Santos and in the same year making the national team. I was touched by Neymar’s tribute. That’s one of the good things of life, specially coming from a teenager”, said a touched Pelé.

Neymar’s now bound to start next weekend’s crunch clash against Corinthians... and his idol Ronaldo. Another clash of generations.

After the match last Sunday, I was eating pizza at a restaurant near Pacaembu stadium when a group of three old-school Santos fans entered smiling from ear to ear, greeting every customer, flabbergasted with the win.

One of them was donning the Santos white shirt with the name 'NEYMAR' on the back. The guy was 85-years-old.

From somewhere in the salon, I overheard the comment: “This Neymar should be the real deal indeed. Our friend here saw Pelé play, perhaps even Dondinho (Pelé’s father, also a footballer). He wouldn’t stain his Santos shirt with the name of a John Doe.”

Hard to argue...

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FourFourTwo’s April issue, out now, is a South America special.

It features the 10 best new wonderkids from that continent, including exclusive interviews with Manchester United’s twins Fabio and Rafael da Silva plus Sao Paolo’s £100m-rated “new Kaka” Hernanes.

There are also interviews with Zico and Socrates; a look at the Boca Juniors academy responsible for Tevez, Burdisso, Gago, Banega et al; and the Lord of the Rings star so dedicated to Argentine outfit San Lorenzo that he bunked off a film set to see them play.

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