SANTOS, Brazil (AP) — Thousands of mourners, including high school students and Supreme Court justices, began marching past the body of Pelé on Monday, on the centuries-old field where he turned his hometown team into one of Brazil’s best.
The soccer star died on Thursday after a battle with cancer. He was the only player to ever win three world championships and he was 82 years old.
Pelé’s coffin, draped with the flags of Brazil and FC Santos, was placed in midfield at Vila Belmiro, the stadium outside of Sao Paulo that hosted most of his career. A Catholic mass will be celebrated there on Tuesday morning before his funeral in a nearby cemetery. Brazil’s newly installed President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva will arrive at the Vila Belmiro just before Pelé’s coffin is removed from the stadium.
The fabled 16,000-seat stadium was surrounded by mourners and covered in Pelé decorations. Fans exiting the stadium said they waited in line for three hours and stood under the blazing sun.
45 years after Pelé played his last game, he is still a central part of Brazil’s national history.
Geovana Sarmento, 17, came with her father, who was wearing a Brazil jersey with Pelé’s name on it.
“I’m not a Santos fan, neither is my father. But this guy invented Brazil’s national team. He made Santos stronger, he made it big, how not to respect him? He’s one of the greatest people of all time, we had to honor him,” she said.
In the 1960s and 70s, Pelé was perhaps the most famous athlete in the world. He’s met presidents and queens, and a civil war in Nigeria was suspended to see him play. Many Brazilians credit him with putting the country on the world stage.
Caio Zalke, 35, an engineer, also wore a Brazil jersey as he waited in line. “Pélé is the most important Brazilian of all time. He made football important to Brazil and he made Brazil important to the world,” he said.
Rows of shirts bearing Pelé’s number 10 were placed behind one of the gates, blowing in the city’s summer breeze. Part of the stands filled with bouquets of flowers laid by mourners and sent from around the world by clubs and star players – including Neymar and Ronaldo – while speakers played a song called “Eu sou Pelé” (“I am Pelé”) would. ), which the Brazilian recorded himself.
Claudio Carrança, 32, a salesman, said: “I’ve never seen him play, but the love for Pelé is a tradition that goes from father to son in Santos. I’ve seen his story, I’ve seen his goals and I see how important Santos FC is because he’s important. I know some Santos fans have kids who support other teams. But that’s only because they’ve never seen Pelé in action. If they had, they would feel the gratitude that I feel now.”
Santos FC said more than 1,100 journalists from 23 countries attended the funeral. Dignitaries and friends of Pelé who were present spoke at the funeral.
Among them was Pelé’s best friend Manoel Maria, who is also a former Santos player. “If I had all the wealth in the world I could never repay what this man has done for me and my family. He was a great man as well as a player; the best ever. His legacy will live on for all of us. And you can see that in this long line of people of all ages here.”
FIFA President Gianni Infantino told journalists that every country should name a stadium after Pele.
“I’m here with a lot of emotions, sadness, but also with a smile because he gave us so many smiles,” Infantino said. “As FIFA, we will pay tribute to the ‘King’ and ask the whole world to observe a minute of silence.”
Another fan and friend in line was Brazilian Supreme Court Justice Gilmar Mendes.
“It’s a very sad moment, but we are now seeing the true importance of this legendary player to our country,” Mendes told reporters. “My office has shirts signed by Pelé, a picture of him as a goalkeeper, also signed by him. DVDs, photos, a large collection of his.”
Mendes also said that despite his worldwide fame, Pelé is a humble man and that he deserves every tribute.
The coffin is paraded through the streets of Santos before his funeral on Tuesday.
Pelé has been treated for colon cancer since 2021. The medical center where he was hospitalized said he died of multiple organ failure as a result of the cancer.
The soccer star led Brazil to World Cup titles in 1958, 1962 and 1970 and remains one of the all-time top scorers with 77 goals. Neymar equaled Pelé’s record during this year’s World Cup in Qatar.
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