Brazil’s Lula pays respects to Pele, 150,000 attend stadium wake

Outpouring tributes continue for the iconic Brazilian footballer, who will be laid to rest near his Santos Football Club.

More than 150,000 people, including President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, paid their respects to the Brazilian football great Pele in the coastal city of Santos, filing past the late legend’s open casket at the Vila Belmiro stadium to bid a final farewell.

A 24-hour memorial service for Pele, who died last week at the age of 82 after battling colon cancer for a year, started on Monday as Brazil prepared to lay its football star to rest on Tuesday.

“Pele represents a lot for us Brazilian people,” Thiago Mostazo, a football fan, told Al Jazeera outside the stadium. “It’s a sad moment, but it’s also a moment to honour his life and his career as the greatest football player ever.”

Geovana Sarmento, 17, waited in the three-hour line to view Pele’s body as it lay in repose at the stadium where he played for most of his career. She came with her father, who was 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 honour him,” she told the Associated Press news agency.

A woman kisses a postcard of Pele as she waits in line to enter Vila Belmiro stadium on January 2, 2023 [Matias Delacroix/AP Photo]

Pele will be buried in Santos, where he grew up, became famous – and helped make the city into a global capital of football. He was the only player ever to win three World Cups.

Thousands of mourners, including high school students and Supreme Court justices, filed past the body of Pele on Monday and overnight into Tuesday on the century-old field where he made his hometown team one of Brazil’s best. Pele’s coffin, draped in the flags of Brazil and the Santos Football Club, was placed in the midfield area of Vila Belmiro.

“Long live the king,” a giant banner read inside the stadium. Dubbed the “king of soccer“, Pele played for Santos from 1956 to 1974, scoring more than 1,000 goals.

Lifelong Santos fan Katia Cruz, 58, who lives a block from the stadium, said she had stood in line for four hours to get into the Vila Belmiro at 1:30am (04:30 GMT), attending the wake alone because her husband was “inconsolable”.

She recalled Pele as a “very good, down-to-earth person” who would always autograph the memorabilia people brought to his house.

“He was humble, a humility today’s players don’t have,” she told AFP.

Rows of shirts with Pele’s number 10 were placed behind one of the goals, waving in the 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 Pele” (“I am Pele”) that was recorded by the Brazilian himself.

The crowd was mostly local, although some came from far corners of the country. Many mourners were too young ever to have seen Pele play.

Newly sworn-in President Lula arrived by helicopter on Tuesday morning and stood next to Pele’s casket in the centre of the field. He took part in a Catholic mass as fans continued to walk past the coffin, and expressed his condolences to Pele’s widow, Marcia Aoki.

“Few Brazilians carried the name of our country as far as he did,” Lula said last week after Pele’s death.

In the 1960s and 70s, Pele 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.

Celebrities and authorities also paid their respects. FIFA President Gianni Infantino was one of the first to attend the memorial on Monday and said he would ask football associations around the world to name a stadium after Pele.

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