‘I had to say goodbye’: thousands pay their respects to Pelé in Brazil | Pele

Thousands of mourners braved punishing heat to pay their final tribute to footballing legend Pelé on Monday as the president of Fifa said he would ask every member country to name a stadium after the recently deceased Brazilian player.

Fans lined up outside the 106-year-old Vila Belmiro ground in Santos – the city in south-eastern Brazil where Pelé first made his name as a star goal scorer in the 1950s – overnight and at about 10am mourners began filing past the coffin that had been placed under a shaded tent in the middle of the field.

Family members, including Pelé’s widow, Marcia Aoki, and sons Edinho and Joshua, as well as dozens of friends and former teammates, stood over the open coffin, some of them weeping.

The world’s media watched on from the main stand as, a few meters to one side of the coffin, fans – most of them wearing shorts and many of them dressed in Santos shirts – walked by in silent tribute.

Three sides of the 16,000-capacity stadium were draped with Santos flags celebrating the life of the city’s favorite son, and the public address system occasionally played some of the songs Pelé recorded during a parallel career as a singer and songwriter.

“LONG LIVE THE KING,” said one massive banner alongside others depicting his face and famous number 10 jersey.

“I had to come and pay tribute,” said Roberto Morais, a 67-year-old who had traveled 50 miles to see Pelé one last time. “I had to say goodbye. He was the king – he taught the whole world.”

Pelé passed away at São Paulo’s Albert Einstein hospital on Thursday afternoon after a long illness. The former Brazil international and Santos and New York Cosmos player was diagnosed with colon cancer in September 2021 and was in and out of hospital for a year.

His cancer stopped responding to treatment in November and doctors said his death came as a consequence of “multiple organ failure”.

Pelé’s body was kept in the hospital over the new year and driven 50 miles to the Santos ground early on Monday morning where it was laid out in the middle of the pitch.

Fans will be allowed to pass by the coffin for 24 hours before it is taken for a private burial on Tuesday. Pelé will be laid to rest in a private service at 10am on Tuesday in the Memorial Necrópole Ecumênica, a vertical cemetery with space for 14,000 bodies.

Pelé’s son Edinho (right) and former Brazil player Ze Roberto lead the coffin’s procession into the stadium. Photograph: Mario Tama/Getty Images

Long queues formed throughout the day on Monday, snaking through the narrow streets that surround the ground where Pelé played many of his more than 1,000 games for the club.

The mood was respectful but noisy, with the presence of dignitaries and politicians guaranteeing a heavy police presence and helicopters flying overhead.

Among the mourners who made their way past the barriers and through the scrum of fans and media were Gianni Infantino, the president of Fifa, and Alejandro Dominguez, the president of the South American Football Confederation (Conmebol).

Infantino announced that he would ask Fifa’s member countries to pay a special tribute to the three-time World Cup winner.

“We will ask every country in the world, every federation in the world, and there are 211 countries that are members of Fifa, to name one of their stadiums with the name of Pelé,” Infantino said. “Because everywhere in the world, children – in 20 years and 50 years and 100 years from now – they need to remember Pelé.

“And they need to remember [Pelé] in a place where you score goals, where teams are winning – and maybe also losing – but where emotions are happening.”

Other fans paid their own tributes, including with flags and fireworks, and members of the organized fan group known as the Torcida Jovem (Young Fans) were present in the narrow streets outside the ground.

“Pelé called us young fans, so that’s what we called ourselves,” said Cosme Damião, who founded the group in 1969. “And he has meant so much to me since then, and we became friends.

“Brazil was one thing before Pelé and another thing after. The city of Santos was one thing before Pelé and another after.”

Edson Arantes do Nascimento was born in the town of Tres Corações (Three Hearts) but was brought up in Bauru, a mid-sized city 250 miles inland from Santos.

The 15-year-old was brought to the port city for a trial in 1956, and after impressing the coaches he quickly found his feet and became a fixture in the first team.

Less than two years after making his debut for the club he was called up for the Brazil squad that went to the 1958 World Cup in Sweden.

Pelé missed the first couple of games through injury but scored six times in the last three matches, including a double in the final against the host country, to give Brazil their first world title.

Fans queue outside the Urbano Caldeira stadium in Santos to attend Pelé's wake.
Fans queue outside the Urbano Caldeira stadium in Santos to attend Pelé’s wake. Photograph: Miguel Schincariol/AFP/Getty Images

Injury meant he played a small part when Brazil successfully defended their trophy in Chile four years later, and in 1966 he was kicked out of the tournament as Brazil were eliminated at the group stage.

However, four years later he made the most triumphant return possible by leading what is considered to be one of the greatest sides ever to a record third World Cup win in Mexico.

Teammate Clodoaldo praised his friend and repeated the oft-heard contention that Pelé was and remains the greatest ever to play the game.

“Pelé showed in 1970 why he was the king,” Clodoaldo said. “The crown was his from that moment on.”

“People who follow football know that young people who didn’t see Pelé play have doubts about him, and I am always being asked: ‘Was he really that good?’ I tell them: if you take a bit of every crack you admire today, you might get close to being as good as Pelé.”

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