This past Wednesday night, on July 27, Santos FC and Flamengo played one of the most exciting matches any football fan could ever hope to see. On a rainy night, both teams put on an absolute show as they combined for nine goals. Ronaldinho - yes, that Ronaldinho - scored a hat trick for Flamengo while Paulo Henrique Ganso and Neymar put on a similar show for Santos, with Neymar scoring a could of goals so flashy, they attracted the attention of the non-footy media. Santos went up 3-0 to start the game, relinquished their lead, took it again, then gave up the last two goals of the match to lose 5-4. Somewhere in there, Elano missed a penalty.
The game only widened the gap between Santos - the Copa Libertadores champions and the flashiest team in the Americas - and the top of the Brasileiro table. Despite their two games in hand on rivals Corinthians and their three games in hand on Flamengo, a domestic title started to look seriously out of reach for Santos after their loss on Wednesday. In 14th place on 11 points, they sat 17 points behind Corinthians.
Perhaps they just needed a win to turn things around, though? That win was supposed to come on Sunday, when Santos traveled away to face Atletico Paranaense, the bottom team in the Brasileiro. Things didn't go as planned, as the hosts took a 2-0 lead in eight minutes thanks to some terrible defending. Neymar scored a fantastic goal in the 12th minute to bring the game back within reach and veteran forward Borges equalized in the 62nd. However, Neymar missed an absolute sitter late, which he would come to regret immensely when Marcinho scored a stoppage time winner for Atletico.
Santos now sit in 17th place in the Brasileiro, fourth from bottom. Their chances of winning the Brasileiro are slim to none, and a top-four finish does nothing for them as they have already qualified for the Copa Libertadores by virtue of winning the most recent edition of that competition. They are now stuck in a dead zone, waiting for the Club World Cup, the next state championship and the Copa Libertadores.
There are a variety of potential reasons for Santos' recent struggles. One could chalk it up to the sales of their key role players, bad play from their center of defense, players being tired from their Libertadores run or a change in mentality from opponents, who are gunning to knock off South America's big dogs. Not listed there is any level of apathy or lack of form from Ganso and Neymar, who have been unquestionably brilliant, even in Santos' losses. Elano and Arouca have been solid as well. The problems stem more from the replacements for Jonathan, Danilo and Ze Eduardo failing to settle in, as well as serious drops in form for defenders Edu Dracena and Durval.
Neymar and Ganso are doing everything that they can to help their team to victory. By the standards of the Santos team that lifted the trophy in the Libertadores, they're doing enough to win. However, that was a team that had three more fantastic role players and two central defenders in better form than what Santos has right now. Elano and Arouca are in good form as well. The Santos defense is just atrocious, and it doesn't look like it's going to get better anytime soon.
This, above all else, is why it is time for Neymar and Ganso to move on to the bright lights and challenges that await them in Europe. Not because they need to raise their games and improve - Brazilian football is better for having them play domestically and they've been brilliant for the national team - but because there is nothing left for them to do in South America. They have wins in their state league, the Brazilian Cup, and Copa Libertadores. They're not going to win the Brasileiro for at least a year and a half. Despite this, they've never been more in demand and more able to make Santos a whole lot of money.
Neymar and Ganso are both too good for South American football, and as pieces leave Santos FC, they slowly become too good for their own team as well. The hype, attention and tension that comes with playing in the UEFA Champions League awaits them, and there will be no difference between their quality in Brazil and their quality in Europe. The dynamic duo - though they will soon be split up - will not be like deer in the headlights when they step onto the pitch at Camp Nou, Old Trafford, or the San Siro. It's time for them to play somewhere where the same can be said for all of their teammates.