‘Our greatest idol’: Brazilians pay homage to Pele

A person stands in front of an image depicting Brazilian football legend Pele as people gather to mourn his death, in Santos, Brazil on 29 December, 2022.Reuters

As soon as they got the news, Antonio Pereira and his son started running: Pele, the man widely considered the greatest footballer of all time, had died, and they wanted to be there to mourn him.

Pereira and 12-year-old Luis Eduardo were not the only ones overcome with emotion – a flood of fans of Brazil’s most revered sporting icon descended on Albert Einstein Israelite Hospital in Sao Paulo Thursday after Pele’s family and doctors confirmed his death at age 82.

“He’s our greatest idol, the greatest footballer of all time,” Antonio told AFP, after running 1.5 kilometers (almost a mile) to the hospital, where Pele died a month after being admitted for what turned out to be his final battle with colon cancer.

Fans of Brazilian football legend Pele embrace as they mourn his death, in Santos, Brazil 30 December, 2022

“I had always hoped to have my picture taken with him someday,” said the 46-year-old businessman.

Wearing a football jersey, young Luis Eduardo said he was sad he had never had the chance to see Pele’s legendary talent in the flesh. But like virtually all Brazilians, he grew up hearing about his exploits.

“The first name I ever heard about in football was Pele, the greatest player of all time,” Luis Eduardo said.

Fans also flocked to leave flowers outside the stadium of the club where Pele spent most of his career, Santos, as the southeastern city declared seven days of mourning for its hero.

Other tributes quickly came nationwide: Brazil declared three days of national mourning, Rio de Janeiro’s iconic Christ the Redeemer statue was lit up in yellow and green, and the famed Maracana stadium was illuminated in gold in homage to “the greatest of all time.”

Maracana stadium is illuminated with a golden light in honour of Brazilian football legend Pele, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on 29 December, 2022

Journalists from around the world meanwhile traveled to Sao Paulo, Santos and Pele’s southeastern hometown, Tres Coracoes, as Brazilian TV ran wall-to-wall coverage of his death and the national outpouring of emotion -- punctuated with dazzling archival footage from his playing days.

‘The King never dies’

Nicknamed “O Rei” – The King – Pele had one of the most storied careers in sport, scoring more than 1,000 goals across his glittering career and winning the World Cup three times -- the only player in history to achieve the feat.

He put Brazil on the world map as the “land of the beautiful game” – as leaders as disparate as outgoing President Jair Bolsonaro and incoming president-elect Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva were quick to mention in glowing tributes.

The Christ The Redeemer statue, on top of Corcovado mountain, is illuminated in green and yellow, the colours of the Brazilian national flag, in honour of Brazilian football legend Pele, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on 29 December, 2022

Outside the hospital in the upscale neighborhood of Morumbi, mourners cried, waved Santos flags and hung a banner reading, “Eternal King Pele.”

“We came to say goodbye, to pay a small tribute to him, as I think everyone should do,” said Jose Carlos Souza Santos, 43.

“Pele represents our passion for football. Everyone who ever wanted to play football has been inspired by him.”

Alipio Bedaque, a 66-year-old consultant, said he had rushed to the hospital, like many -- but only after quickly putting on his prized Santos 1956 replica jersey, the year of Pele’s debut.

Football fans stand in front of a banner reading "Eternal King Pele" outside the Albert Einstein Israelite Hospital, where the Brazilian football legend died after a long battle with cancer in Sao Paulo, Brazil on 29 December, 2022

He vividly recalls watching Pele play with Santos, a city 75 kilometers from Sao Paulo.

“You didn’t even see the other players. You just fixated on Pele and what he would do,” Bedaque said.

“Pele and Santos are what made me fall in love with football.”

But Pele’s legacy won’t stop there, he said.

“He was a giant worldwide icon, well beyond his sport.”