Could Neymar return to Santos to revive his boyhood club?

Just over a week ago, Neymar rushed down from Miami to be in the stadium of Santos, the club where his story began, for a local final against Palmeiras. He was greeted like the returning hero, but he may well be a figure who divides opinions. Nevertheless, Santos is one of those places where the division is most firmly in his favour. In four magical years with the club, he took Santos to their first triumph in the CONMEBOL Libertadores, South America's Champions League, since the days of the early 1960s with Pelé.

The fans hope he can do something similar in the future. As he went to social media to declare himself an "Eternal kid from the Vila" (Vila Belmiro is the name of the stadium), the supporters chanted for him to return. Could he? Might he? It is certainly a possibility.

Former great Rivaldo certainly thinks so. "There is a big chance that he will return," he told Betfair. "Everyone knows about the affection that Neymar feels for Santos, where he is an idol. After years in Europe and Saudi Arabia, he doesn't need anything from a financial point of view. He could come back and play in Serie A for Santos and be close to the Brazilian fans as he prepares for the next World Cup."

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It's an intriguing thought. As things stand, Neymar -- who has been out injured since November with an anterior cruciate ligament injury -- becomes a free agent in the middle of next year, at the age of 33, when his contract with Saudi Pro League club Al Hilal expires. The parts fit in Rivaldo's scenario. The timing would be right for him to come back and get ready for what will probably be his last dart at the World Cup in 2026. It would be wonderful public relations for him to turn out for such a famous old club in return for a symbolic wage. The only problem is that unless they win promotion this year, Neymar would be warming up for the World Cup in Brazil's second division.

In the first season since the death of Pelé, with the great man's mausoleum overlooking the stadium, Santos were relegated for the first time in their glorious history. The event -- and the subsequent riot in the streets -- made headlines all around the world. People were stunned. They should not have been.

Santos are a prolonged miracle, and even miracles do not last forever. There is no other club in Brazil remotely like them. All of the other big traditional teams come from the giant state capitals. Santos is a port, which boomed during the coffee years. Its population does not even reach half a million. It is dwarfed by the nearby metropolis of São Paulo, an hour up the hill if traffic is good.

It is truly extraordinary that a club that, by Brazilian standards, represents a small city could for so long keep defeating the giants. There was an enormous fortune in that the teenage Pelé walked into probably the best team in the history of Santos -- and then he made it even better. Throughout the 60s, they probably had a claim to be the best club in the world.

It could hardly last. Once Pelé had gone, Santos slipped a little -- only to come roaring back in the current century, making a name for themselves as one of the world's foremost developers of youth talent. But the warning signs were flashing. Over recent years, Brazil's clubs have learned how to monetize their fan bases. Revenue has poured in from television, sponsorship, and from supporter membership schemes. But it has not poured in equally. Huge gaps have opened up -- making it much harder for a small-town club to compete. The current capacity of the Vila Belmiro stadium is below 18,000.

Santos continued to punch above their weight with their youth work. First, they would gain the benefit on the field of the likes of Diego Ribas and Robinho, Neymar and Danilo, and more recently Rodrygo. Then they would balance the books through their transfer fees. But all such clubs are aware that there is a catch. In the end, you are forced to move players on earlier, meaning that the next generation are thrown in sooner -- and some buckle under the strain of trying to live up to illustrious predecessors.

Meanwhile, the club directors panic, churn up coach after coach, and make desperate signings that they cannot afford. Last week, a meeting of the club rejected the accounts for 2023 and the then-president, like the four before him, runs the risk of being expelled as a member.

Rodrigo Capelo, Brazil's foremost expert in football finance, is concerned. "Santos ended 2023 already having spent some of the money from 2024," he says, explaining that the club took an advance on some of the TV revenue. "And now they are not in the first division, and they are not even in the [very lucrative] domestic cup, and their other lines of revenue are weak -- sponsorship, ticket sales, membership schemes. The source of revenue that from time to time has been saving Santos is player sales."

However, there is no potential big-money wonderkid around at the moment. "There is a bomb ticking away," Capelo says. "And at the end of this year, we'll have a better idea of just how big it is. This is just a guess at this point, but it could be that even if they manage to win promotion to the first division, then the situation will be so dire, with the need to invest in a new stadium and improve youth development, that the way out will be to turn into a business.

"I'm not saying this is a good thing or a bad thing, but the club situation could make this a necessity."

Over the last few years, legal changes have opened up this possibility. Historically social membership clubs, now Brazil's teams can be acquired and owned by capital from home or abroad. High-profile clubs such as Cruzeiro and Botafogo, among others, have gone down this road. According to Capelo, the history and prestige of Santos make them an obvious candidate for such a transition.

"While Neymar was still at Paris Saint-Germain, his father (and business manager Neymar Snr.) was trying to act as a bridge between Santos and the Qataris, he says. "He took the idea to [then-president] Andres Rueda, who was not impressed -- and the idea died at the moment that Neymar left PSG. I don't know, but it is possible that now he is thinking of moving on the same lines with the Saudis."

So could Santos become a South American Newcastle? One of their shirts does feature black and white stripes. The current president, back for his third spell in charge, is Marcelo Teixeira. He is seen as close to Neymar Snr., so it will be interesting to see if there are any business developments in the year.

Neymar Jr., meanwhile, brought Santos luck in that first leg of the local final. They beat Palmeiras 1-0. But a week later they lost the return match 2-0. Palmeiras, then, were crowned champions of São Paulo state. Winning the competition would have been a morale boost, but the real stuff -- the quest to get back into the first division -- gets underway this coming weekend when the national leagues kick off.

The good news is that it seems that Santos have been able to dribble around a worldwide transfer ban, imposed by FIFA for not paying fees to other clubs. There is a hope that an agreement has been reached with the Russian club Krasnodar. Santos brought in former goalkeeper Edinho, better known as Pelé's son, to help with the negotiations, and it appears that his charm, fluent English and family connections were a help in thrashing out a deal.

But for many the real dream is that in the middle of next year, there will be a transfer that does not involve any money, that one of the great names in the club's history will arrive for free, and that Neymar Jr. will once again pull on the famous white shirt of Santos.