Three-time World champion Pele was at the forefront of celebrations as his former Brazilian club Santos celebrated its centenary on Saturday.

Pele spent two decades at the club where he made his name and arrived by helicopter to lead the cheerleading at its Vila Belmiro stadium while current star Neymar was also on hand along with dozens of children who were also allowed onto the pitch to enjoy the occasion at close quarters during a special gala match.

“This moment is a gift from God,” said Pele, 71, who made his club debut in 1956 and continued in its black and white colours until 1974 before heading for the US league with New York Cosmos prior to retirement.

Moment of pleasure

“All this happiness, this moment of pleasure — it's not just about me. Many suffered with me — I thank everyone,” said an emotional Pele, Globo daily's web portal ‘web G1' reported.

The club's prodigal son arrived clutching the Copa Libertadores Trophy which Santos won for the third time last season.

Former stars from across the generations joined Pele to mark the centenary of a club which was a small-time outfit at its birth on April 14, 1912, before the likes of Pele turned it into world beater.

It won the Sao Paulo state championship 11 times in 15 seasons in an era when the competition was far more prestigious than it is today.

The club won the South American Copa Libertadores in successive years in 1962 and 1963 and also won the Intercontinental Cup — played against the reigning European champion — back to back in these years.

Two-legged victories over Eusebio's Benfica and Italian giant AC Milan allowed Santos to legitimately call itself the best team in the world.

Everyone wanted to see it in action and, as Pele said at the presentation of a book to mark the club's centenary, “the only place Santos did not visit was the moon.”

Its visit to a Congo embroiled in war in 1969 was enough to bring a halt to the fighting, albeit only temporarily, and the same applied when Santos visited Nigeria at the time of the Biafra Civil War that same year.

“It made no sense for these countries to carry on fighting while Santos were there,” club historian Guilherme Nascimento recently told sports daily Lance!

FIFA had earlier paid its tribute by noting on its website earlier in the week that “rarely in the history of football can a team have been so closely associated with one player as Santos FC are with Pele.”

Kit unveiled

Thousands of fans looked on as the club's new turquoise kit was unveiled — a nod to what G1 termed “the colonial and harbour inheritance of the city and the colours and the famous Itororo fountain,” a Santos landmark and long-time meeting place and popular tourist attraction.

Santos hails from the city of the same name on Brazil's Atlantic coast founded in the mid-16th century, and the city's association with the sea explains the club's nickname ‘O Peixe' (‘The Fish' in English).

The club, who in January 1998 were recognised by FIFA as becoming the first in the history of the game to score 10,000 official goals, is celebrating its first 100 years in a variety of ways.

Commemorative book

The launch of a book and the release of a documentary film entitled ‘Santos: 100 years of football art' will allow fans of the world game to relive the history of this great club, named by FIFA as the best on the American continent in the 20th century.

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