As Brazil prepared for Pele’s funeral, condolences and reminiscences for the most famous soccer player in history poured in from around the world.
Pele’s body will lie at midfield at the Estádio Urbano Caldeira, known popularly as Vila Belmiro, in Santos, Brazil, for 24 hours, starting Monday morning, to allow what is expected to be a throng of mourners to pass by. The stadium, in the state of Sao Paulo, is home to Santos FC, the club where Pele spent nearly his entire career.
The body will then be taken through the streets of Santos to the Ecumenical Necropolis Memorial for a private burial.
On Friday morning, fans gathered at soccer’s main landmarks in Santos, a port city of about 430,000.
Across the street from the stadium, Eva de Souza Nunes, 84, hung an oversized black-and-white flag bearing the club’s crest from her balcony.
“I’m in mourning today,” said de Souza Nunes, a retired nurse. “And it’s not just me. Brazil is in mourning; the whole world is in mourning.”
Across town, fans streamed to a bronze statue depicting Pelé's famous “air punch” goal celebration, laying flowers and taking selfies. Rafael Barbosa, a 32-year-old bar owner, and his daughter Livia, 10, drew close to the statue for a picture, lifting their fists and striking the famous pose.
“Pele is our king,” said Barbosa, who had travelled more than 482 kilometres from the city of Paraguacu Paulista to pay his respects. “He’s history. He lives on in our memories, in the memories of our grandparents.”
Vilma Mattos de Lima, a 69-year-old special-education teacher, wore a white jersey that Pele had signed, and laid a hand on the statue with reverence.
“I was 10 years old when I saw him play for the first time,” she said. “And I was enchanted from that moment. Losing him is heartbreaking.”
As befits a player who transcended his sport to become an iconic figure for his country and who transcended his country to become a symbol for soccer worldwide, praise and memories of Pele have poured in across social media since his death Thursday.
“I had the privilege that the younger Brazilians did not have: I saw Pele play live at Pacaembu and Morumbi,” said Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Brazil’s incoming president, referring to two stadiums in Sao Paulo. “Not merely play. I saw Pele presenting a master class. When he got the ball, he always did something special, often ending in a goal. I confess I had a lot of anger issues regarding Pele, because he always slaughtered my Corinthians. But first of all, I admired him. And the anger soon gave way to passion of watching him play with the 10 jersey of the Brazilian national team.”
“Pele changed everything,” said Neymar, the Brazilian superstar. “He turned football into art, into entertainment, he gave a voice to the poor, to Black people and, above all, he gave visibility to Brazil. Football and Brazil raised their status, thanks to the king. He is gone, but his magic will remain. Pele is eternal.”
“He will be immortalized in every magnificent goal, in every moment of genius, but mainly in each one of us who were inspired by him and his generation,” said former Brazilian great Cafu.
“By your feet we were and will continue to be blessed by your art,” said Marta, one of the best women’s players ever. “I love you, king.”
“Michael Jordan was the Pele of basketball,” said Antonio Tabet, a Brazilian comedian. “Muhammad Ali was the Pele of boxing. Michael Phelps was the Pele of swimming. Roger Federer was the Pele of tennis. Pele was Pele. Eternal, unrestricted and an adjective.”
Pele had a worldwide impact.
“For a sport that brings the world together like no other, Pele’s rise from humble beginnings to soccer legend is a story of what is possible,” U.S. President Joe Biden said.
“Pele made millions of young boys in the Global South to dream,” said Kenyan President William Samoei Ruto. “His profile as a global icon of sporting excellence and high athletic achievement was an inspirational model which encouraged young men to transcend their limitations and defy all economic, social, cultural and political barriers.”
“The most divine of footballers and joyous of men,” said English commentator and former star player Gary Lineker. “He played a game only a few chosen ones have come close to. Three times he lifted the most coveted gold trophy in that beautiful yellow shirt.”