SANTOS, Brazil (AP) — Thousands of mourners, including high school students and supreme court justices, began filing past the body of Pelé on Monday on the century-old field where he made his hometown team one of Brazil’s best.
The soccer great died on Thursday after a battle with cancer. The only player ever to win three World Cups was 82.
Pelé’s coffin, draped in the flags of Brazil and the Santos FC football club, was placed on the midfield area of Vila Belmiro, the stadium outside Sao Paulo that was his home for most of his career. A Catholic Mass will be celebrated there Tuesday morning before his burial at a nearby cemetery. Brazil’s newly inaugurated President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva will come to Vila Belmiro shortly before Pelé’s coffin is removed from the stadium.
The storied 16,000-seat stadium was surrounded by mourning fans, and covered with Pelé-themed decorations inside.
Fans coming out of the stadium said they’d waited three hours in line, standing under a blazing sun.
Forty-five years after Pelé played his last game, he’s still a central part of Brazil’s national story.
Geovana Sarmento, 17, came with her father wearing a Brazil shirt with Pele’s name.
“I am 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 could you not respect him? He is one of the greatest people ever, we needed to honor him,” she said.
In the 1960s and 70s, Pelé was perhaps the world’s most famous athlete. He met presidents and queens, and in Nigeria a civil war was put on hold to watch him play. Many Brazilians credit him with putting the country on the world stage for the first time.
Caio Zalke, 35, an engineer, also wore a Brazil shirt as he waited in line. “Pelé is the most important Brazilian of all time. He made soccer important for Brazil and he made Brazil important for the world,” he said.
Rows of shirts with Pelé’s number 10 were placed behind one of the goals, waving in city’s summer winds. A section of the stands was filling up with bouquets of flowers placed by mourners and sent by clubs and star players — Neymar and Ronaldo among them — from around the world as loudspeakers played a song named “Eu sou Pelé” (“I am Pelé”) that was recorded by the Brazilian himself.
Claudio Carrança, 32, a salesman, said: “I never saw him play, but loving Pelé is a tradition that goes from father to son in Santos. I learned his history, saw his goals, and I see how Santos FC is important because he is important. I know some Santos fans have children supporting other teams. But that’s just because they never saw Pelé in action. If they had, they would feel this gratitude I feel now.”
Santos FC said that more than 1,100 journalists from 23 countries were at the funeral. Dignitaries and friends of Pelé in attendance 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 would never be able to repay what this man did for me and my family. He was as great a man as he was as a player; the best of all time. His legacy will outlive us all. And that can be seen in this long line with people of all ages here.”
FIFA President Gianni Infantino told journalists that every country should name a stadium after Pelé.
“I am here with a lot of emotion, sadness, but also with a smile because he gave us so many smiles,” Infantino said. “As FIFA, we will pay a tribute to the ‘King’ and we ask the whole world to observe a minute of silence.”
Another fan and friend in line was Brazilian Supreme Court Justice Gilmar Mendes.
“It is a very sad moment, but we are now seeing the real meaning of this legendary player to our country,” Mendes told journalists. “My office has shirts signed by Pelé, a picture of him as a goalkeeper, also signed by him. DVDs, photos, a big collection of him.”
Mendes also said Pelé was a humble man despite his global fame, and that he deserves every tribute.
Pelé’s casket will be ushered through the streets of Santos before his burial Tuesday.
Pelé had undergone treatment for colon cancer in 2021. The medical center where he had been hospitalized said he died of multiple organ failure as a result of cancer.
Pelé led Brazil to World Cup titles in 1958, 1962, and 1970 and remains one of the team’s all-time leading scorers with 77 goals. Neymar tied Pelé’s record during this year’s World Cup in Qatar.