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.
Thousands of fans and football dignitaries including FIFA president Gianni Infantino slowly filed 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 center of the field.
Pele, a three-time World Cup winner widely considered the greatest footballer of all time, died Thursday at age 82 after a battle with cancer.
Infantino, who attended the wake with the heads of the South American and Brazilian football confederations, said the sport’s governing body would ask all member countries to name a stadium in Pele’s honor.
“Pele is eternal. He’s a global icon of football,” he told journalists in Santos, a southeastern port city 75 kilometers (45 miles) from Sao Paulo.
Carlos Mota and his 12-year-old son Bernardo had traveled more than 500 kilometers from Rio de Janeiro to pay tribute to their hero.
“My whole childhood was influenced by what Pele did for Brazil, by his World Cup wins. He was a national idol,” said Mota.
“I’ve always told my son, there are three indisputable facts: the ball is round, the grass is green and Pele is the greatest of all time.”
Bernardo clearly took the lesson to heart. “I never saw Pele play, but I’ve seen the videos. He’s the greatest player who ever walked the Earth,” he said.
Seventy-five-year-old retiree Vera Lucia, who had made the trip from Sao Paulo, was also braving the scorching sun to stand in line, which stretched to two kilometers in the early afternoon.
“I’m just devastated,” she said. “We always loved watching his matches as a family.”
Tributes to ‘eternal’ star
Born Edson Arantes do Nascimento, Pele exploded onto the scene at age 15, when he made his professional debut with Santos.
He went on to win the World Cup three times with Brazil, in 1958, 1962 and 1970 — the only player in history to achieve the feat.
Tributes have poured in from around the world since his death, with a Who’s Who of current and former football greats hailing his genius for the “beautiful game.”
A stream of athletes, politicians, dignitaries and fans are expected in Santos for the 24-hour wake, though turnout may be dented somewhat by the New Year’s holiday weekend.
Some 7,000 people had filed past the casket by mid-afternoon, according to Brazil’s TV Globo. Pele’s coffin was carried into the stadium by pallbearers dressed in black, led by his son Edinho.
The late icon’s widow, Marcia Cibele Aoki, his third wife, whom he married in 2016, cried before his open casket as she reached out to touch his head.
The coffin was surrounded by white flowers, including bouquets from the likes of Real Madrid or current Brazil star Neymar, whose father was in attendance.
Three giant flags were displayed in the black-and-white stadium, one with an image of Pele sporting his famous number 10 jersey.
Another bore the message “Long live the King”; the third said simply, “Pele 82 years.”
Other tributes have come in from around Brazil, which held three days of national mourning. At the headquarters of the Brazilian Football Confederation in Rio, a giant poster with Pele’s image bears the word “eternal.”
And the inauguration of Brazil’s President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva on Sunday began with a minute’s silence in Pele’s memory.
Pele had been in fragile health, suffering from kidney problems and then colon cancer.
But he remained active on social media, cheering on Brazil from his hospital bed in Sao Paulo 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.
The wake will be followed by a funeral procession Tuesday through Santos, including past the house of Pele’s mother, 100-year-old Celeste Arantes, who is still alive.
The procession will end at Santos’s Memorial Cemetery, where a Catholic funeral service will be held before Pele is interred in a special mausoleum.