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Brazil's Santos does some soul-searching after 1st-ever relegation a year after Pelé's death

SAO PAULO (AP) — The same stadium where Pelé’s funeral took place earlier this year was invaded by angry fans on Thursday, the day after Santos was relegated for the first time in the Brazilian league.

The historic black and white club at Vila Belmiro Stadium that once impressed fans worldwide is now in debt, politically divided, searching for new heroes and gloomy about its future with less money in the second division as Brazil's soccer becomes increasingly more competitive and expensive.

About two dozen fans broke into the stadium as they searched for club president Andrés Rueda, who was at work not too far away at the King Pelé training ground. The supporters blame the club's erratic management — 10 coaches in three years — as much as players who the night before lost 2-1 to Fortaleza.

A win would have kept Santos in Brazil’s top-flight division, allowing the club to once more survive relegation that was also close in the two previous seasons not only in the league, but also in the much less competitive Sao Paulo state championship.

But this time the team of Venezuelan midfielder Jeferson Soteldo, Colombian striker Stiven Mendoza and 20-year-old goal Brazil national team hopeful Marcos Leonardo could not do it in front of about 20,000 of its supporters.

Flamengo and Sao Paulo are the remaining top teams in Brazil that have never been relegated.

Santos' downfall in the Brazilian championship that celebrated Pelé's life in the 10th minute of every match, in a reference to the number of the shirt he made famous, hurt even more former teammates of the three-time World Cup winner.

“At age 88, my heart has lived many emotions, good and bad. I could not believe what I saw last night,” former Santos striker Pepe, who scored 405 goals for the club in 750 matches, said on Instagram. “I never contemplated the possibility of being relegated. It was as if the Gods of Soccer protected us.”

Santos has struggled to bring in players since before Pelé's death on Dec. 29 at age 81 due to colon cancer. Several footballers who would never set foot at the Vila Belmiro Stadium decades ago became key starters of the embattled team, with midfielder Camacho being a reference of that for fans.

Santos remains one of the best soccer academies in Brazil, but fans wonder what has happened to the millions of euros paid for some of its teenage stars. This year, the club sold little-known striker Deivid Washington to Chelsea for 15 million euros ($16.1 million), but still couldn't bring better players to not only avoid relegation, but also fight for a spot in the prestigious Copa Libertadores.

“They are crooks, they destroyed Santos because they thought relegation was impossible,” said Vitor Claudio, 28, a bike-messenger and fan who proudly wore a jacket with the club's crest in the upscale region of Pinheiros in Sao Paulo. “If we had used that money to buy two good midfielders, just that, we would be more competitive than the teams we fought relegation against, Vasco da Gama and Bahia.”

Santos coordinator Alexandre Gallo said the club's debt amounting to about 700 million Brazilian reals ($142 million) took that money. Other local clubs like Corinthians and Sao Paulo have even higher debts, but Santos has a smaller following that sharply reduces its chances of making revenue.

“This squad had too many problems, we couldn't make that correction because we could only sign players who were out of a contract this season,” Gallo said at a media conference. “It is possible to have a better team than this one despite this reality we are in. The lack of quality brought us to this situation.”

Now, as the club continues to soul search, it will have to play in the second division next year with much slimmer resources both in marketing and in TV broadcasting revenues.

Still, some people hope it won't be as bad for the club that most Brazilians once cheered for.

“It won't be more than one year,” said former club striker Dodo, now a TV analyst. “If the right work is done Santos will be back soon. Other clubs that were relegated also used this as an opportunity to regroup and improve. Pelé will be watching from above, Santos will get out of this hole and shine again.”

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AP soccer: https://apnews.com/hub/soccer

Mauricio Savarese, The Associated Press