Endrick stars as Palmeiras claim extraordinary Brazilian title

Real Madrid-bound Endrick played the key role in Palmeiras' Brazilian Serie A title run. Gledston Tavares/Eurasia Sport Images/Getty Images

It was probably a question of time, but the timing was cruel indeed. In the first season since the death of Pele, his old club Santos suffered an unprecedented relegation to Brazil's second division.

Pelé lies in a mausoleum close to the stadium of Santos, the club side that was probably the best in the world from the late 1950s through the 60s. This was a miracle. The other major Brazilian clubs come from the big state capitals. Santos are the exception. With a population under half a million, Santos is a port city dwarfed by the nearby metropolis of São Paulo. Pele and his magnificent supporting cast took on all comers, and in recent years excellent youth development work kept the club competitive. But in the modern age, when financial gaps have opened between Brazil's clubs, it was hard to see how Santos could stay at the top. The warning signs have been around for a while, and on Wednesday, on a dramatic last night of the 2023 season, a 2-1 defeat at home to Fortaleza was a sad end to the club's unbroken run in the first division.

To rub further salt into the wound, the Brazilian Serie A title ended up with Palmeiras of São Paulo, one of those bigger neighbours that Santos have so often delighted in defeating.

True, the 2023 season will go down as the one that Botafogo threw away. The Rio de Janeiro club at one point held a seemingly unassailable 13-point lead only to panic and collapse under pressure. They ended the season with 10 games without a win, and slumped to a melancholic fifth place.

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But if Botafogo did not seem to want the title, then someone else had to step up -- and the achievement of Palmeiras was nothing short of extraordinary. This was an unlikely triumph, and may be the high point in the hugely promising coaching career of Abel Ferreira, a name for the notebook.

A right-back of limited distinction in his playing days, Ferreira arrived unheralded at Palmeiras just over three years ago. A 41-year-old Portuguese coach who had last worked in Greece, he was a virtual unknown in Brazil. That is emphatically no longer the case.

In his time in Brazil, he has won the Copa Libertadores twice, the Brazilian Cup, and now the league title for the second consecutive year; and this latest achievement is probably the most impressive of all. The squad is thin -- midfielder Danilo, for example, has not been adequately replaced since his move to Nottingham Forest. Key attacking midfielder Dudu suffered a long term injury. Main striker Rony, a player whom Ferreira has carefully developed, lost form. The substitutes bench has been full of teenagers. Two months ago, in a typically spiky post-match press conference, Ferreira joked that he was expecting an accusation of using child labour -- and it is one of those adolescents who rose to the challenge over the final weeks.

Palmeiras ended the campaign with eight wins and two draws in their final 11 games. Top scorer in that run was 17-year-old striker Endrick, who came of age in the most important game of the season.

At the start of November, Palmeiras found themselves 3-0 down away to Botafogo. They won 4-3, with Endrick scoring two fine goals. Until that point there were still doubts about the youngster's capacity to shine at the highest level. Had he been over hyped? The answer he gave that night was an emphatic "no". The stocky left-footer showed all the skills and the strength of character to take charge of proceedings. In retrospect this was the moment when Palmeiras started to win the title.

Endrick maintained his form all the way to the finish line. It was his goal that gave Palmeiras a last-day 1-1 draw away to Cruzeiro, ensuring they finished two points clear of a Luis Suárez-inspired Grêmio.

Palmeiras fans, though, are already preparing their farewells. In the middle of next year, Endrick will already be on his way to Real Madrid. What is less clear is how long Ferreira will be around.

In the over-cluttered calendar of Brazilian football, three years is a long time. Ferreira has hinted at mental tiredness. It is also hard to see how he can top this latest triumph in his current job. The coach brought all of his brooding intensity and sharp-eyed intelligence to bear over the final weeks. In adversity he found a way to re-invent his side, switching to a three-centre-back formation, and often had to rejig things during games following a red card or a goal conceded. His players are in awe of his capacity to come up with a plan for every occasion.

There has been speculation that he might leave, amid links to a club in Qatar with deep pockets. But he is so reminiscent of the young Jose Mourinho that it would surely be interesting to see him given a chance with a major European club. But that is for the future. For the next few days Ferreira has every right to enjoy his league triumph -- while the supporters of Santos search for ways to ease the pain.