The wife of Pele, Marcia Aoki, (top R), former Santos player Serginho Chulapa (top L) kisses football legend and others attend his wake at the Urbano Caldeira stadium in Santos, Sao Paulo, on Monday. AFP / Reuters
An emotional Brazil began paying its final respects Monday to football legend Pele with a wake at the stadium where he first took the world’s breath away with his dazzling skill.
Hundreds of fans lined up on Monday morning to file through the Vila Belmiro, home to Pele’s longtime club, Santos, where the coffin bearing the remains of “O Rei” (The King) was displayed in the centre of the field.
Pele, a three-time World Cup winner widely considered the greatest footballer of all time, died Thursday at the age of 82 after a long battle with cancer.
Carlos Mota and his 12-year-old son Bernardo traveled more than 500 kilometres from Rio de Janeiro to Santos, a southeastern port city in Sao Paulo state, to pay tribute to their late hero.
“My whole childhood was influenced by what Pele did for Brazil, by his World Cup wins. He was a national idol,” Mota, 59, told AFP. “I never saw Pele play, but I’ve seen the videos. He’s the greatest player who ever walked the Earth,” said Bernardo.
FIFA president Gianni Infantino and Alejandro Dominguez, head of the South American football confederation CONMEBOL, were among the first to pay their respects at the open coffin, which was displayed under an awning and surrounded by bouquets of white flowers.
The oceanside stadium of the team nicknamed “Peixe” — “fish” in Portuguese — opened its doors at 10:00 am (1300 GMT) for a 24-hour wake, to be followed by a funeral procession through the streets of Santos on Tuesday, then a private interment.
Known as Vila Belmiro after the neighborhood where it is located, the black-and-white stadium has a capacity of 16,000 people. In the stands, three giant flags were displayed, one with an image of Pele sporting his famous number 10 on his jersey.
Another bore the message “Long live the king”; the third said simply, “Pele 82 years.” Tuesday’s funeral procession will pass by the house of Pele’s mother, 100-year-old Celeste Arantes, who is still alive but unconscious and unaware that her son has died, according to family. The procession will end at a cemetery in Santos, where Pele will be interred in a special mausoleum.
Tributes to ‘eternal’ star
Born Edson Arantes do Nascimento, Pele is the only player in history to win three World Cups and defined the “beautiful game” with his talent. His death sparked a global outpouring of tributes. Pele scored 1,283 goals in a career of 21 years, most of them played at Santos.
Wreaths of flowers left by his fans have brought a splash of color to Vila Belmiro, which houses a bust and a statue of the football great.
Elsewhere in the city, banners with Pele’s face decorate another monument erected in his likeness. At the headquarters of the Brazilian Football Confederation in Rio de Janeiro, a giant poster with Pele’s image bears the word “eternal.” And at the inauguration on Sunday of Brazil’s President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the ceremony began with a minute’s silence in Pele’s memory.
There was a heavy security deployment in Santos, with throngs of athletes, politicians, dignitaries and fans expected to descend on the port city 75 kilometers outside Sao Paulo.
Pele had been hospitalised at the Albert Einstein Hospital for a month until his death on Dec.29. Born on Oct.23, 1940, he grew up selling peanuts on the street to help his impoverished family.
He got his famous nickname after mispronouncing Bile, the name of a goalkeeper at Vasco de Sao Lourenco, where his footballer father once played.
Pele exploded onto the scene at age 15, when he made his professional debut with Santos.
At just 17, he helped Brazil to its first World Cup championship, in 1958.
That was followed by World Cup titles in 1962 and 1970. The latter marked the pinnacle of his career, as he starred on what many consider the greatest team of all time. Pele had been in increasingly fragile health in recent years.
He remained active on social media, cheering on Brazil during the World Cup in Qatar and consoling the pre-tournament favorites when they were eliminated in the quarter-finals just three weeks before his death.