before Pelé’s funeral wake, his stronghold of Santos remembers

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Pelé has spent most of his career and life in Santos, a port city south of Sao Paulo. A funeral vigil will be held on Monday at the stadium where he accomplished some of his exploits, but residents did not wait for his remains to honor him. Report.

Under the crushing sun of the tropical summer, residents and tourists passing through Santos on this Sunday, January 1, smell two diametrically opposed directions. Much of it goes south and along the beach of this seaside town that has been taken over by the locals of Sao Paulo. The rest head north, Brazil or Santos FC jerseys on their backs, to pay homage to football legend Pelé who has played in the local black and white colors for most of his life.

Around the stadium of Vila Belmiro it is time for the final preparations. The next day, Monday, January 2, the remains of the “King” will be invisible from Albert-Einstein Hospital where he spent his last days in the 16,000-seat space for a grandiose funeral vigil, which will take its place in the pantheon of football. Santos FC employees are busy reaching miles of barriers to welcome the crowds that want to pay their hero their last respects. Further on, groups of supporters come and spread tarpaulins in the stadium. “It’s going to be madness,” slips a local journalist. “There will never be enough room for everyone.”

>> To also read: Pelé and Maradona: enemy brothers for eternity

Some, too rushed, make only a short stop near the stadium. A double parking space next to the fence, the moment to take a family selfie that will feed the social networks before leaving to enjoy the sweetness of this New Year’s Day. But other people take the time to reflect on the legend’s place in their lives and that of their country.

“It is a sense of unity”

Like Ruan and Gabriela, a young couple from Sao Paulo. “We are here because it is a historic moment. Pele is a legend. He transcends football and left his mark everywhere he went,” says the 28-year-old designer from Bauru, where the “king” took his first steps as a footballer. “I became a fan of Santos through my grandfather who was a fan of Pele. And I think all the fathers and grandfathers who saw the “king” play passed that on to the next generations. The legend of Pele will continue.”

“I have thought a lot about what brings us here and in my opinion it is the feeling of belonging that football offers,” continues Gabriela, an institutional journalist for a car brand. “For me, football is a bond with my family. Football brings me closer to my father. And even though I’m not permanently football, this bond brings us closer. Pelé has allowed people to come together despite their teams and their differences.

Pelé, number 10 for eternity. ©Romain Houeix, France 24

At door number 10, the number Pelé has worn throughout his career and won to elevate to the rank of myth, a memorial has been improvised at the foot of the statue of the only man to win three football World Cups. Flowers and wreaths have been laid, many passers-by come to visit.

A great man with time for everyone

Ana Varela observes the turmoil that has taken over the neighborhood. She lives across from the stadium’s main entrance, a blue and red vertical house. She is the president and founder of the Torcida Seria Santista, the very first group of female supporters in Brazil. The 65-year-old only saw Pele play once, way back in the 1970s, but she ranks him higher than anything else.

“He was friendly with the ball. The ball burned him and he burned the ball,” she portrays, Santos FC shirt on her back. “He was like a GPS: he always knew where he was on a pitch, as well as his teammates, his opponents and the ball. Above all, he took Santos and Brazil around the world.”

Ana Varela could talk for hours about Pelé and Santos FC. ©Romain Houeix, France 24

This grey-haired lady is most remembered for the man behind the star. Because after shining on the lawn of Vila Belmiro for so long, the Brazilian had his habits in the area.

“He was also a great man. He had charisma, but attracted people with his simplicity. He spoke to everyone. He always took the time to stop. He took care of attention. He signed all the autographs, taking into account the photos. He was human, he didn’t act like a star, and all that made him what he was: the best of them all,’ she sums up, somewhat moved.

Santos FC in the skin

The “German” says nothing else. Alberto Francisco de Oliveira, whose real name no one uses, runs the bar next to the stadium. A high gathering place for fans of the black and white jersey. The shop owner is an absolute fan of the club. He has a dated club crest tattooed on his arms for every regional championship win Santos has secured since following them. And in the middle of the forehead another comb, because of a bet this one.

“In 2006 I promised the coach that I would get a tattoo in a place where no one would tattoo if they were champions. They were and so I tattooed my head,” says this colorful character. “But if it wasn’t for Pele, I would have supported another team. He was a different player. He was a monster on the field. His dribbling, his shooting. feet. No one could have imagined what he was doing with the ball.”

He admits that the neighborhood is marked by the disappearance of the football icon. Didi, the famous “Barber of Pelé” whose shop is attached to the bar, closed the curtain as soon as he heard the news. “It is very sad news to end the year. It will be two very hard days…”, explains the bartender.

“That’s life… But when Edson Arantes do Nascimento is gone, Pelé will be eternal to him”, his neighbor likes to think. Since the country is divided, “there was a union through him. Do you see all these people? They just came to say goodbye to him. I have no words.”

Pele put Santos on the map

In addition to uniting the country, Pelé has put Santos on the map of Brazilian football. With his star, the team from the humble port city competed with the big teams of Sao Paulo – Corinthians, Palmeiras and other Sao Paulo FC. With him, the club won the regional championship ten times, two Copa Libertadores, two world interclubs… The fame of the “king” has even taken him beyond the borders of Brazil with invitations to compete against clubs in Italy, England, Africa …

"Thanks king!"says this poster in the city of Santos.
“Thanks King!” says this poster in the city of Santos. ©Romain Houeix, France 24

It makes sense, then, that Pelé chose his adopted city for his final journey. He arrived at Santos at the age of 15 before playing there for 18 years (1956–1974), scoring 1,091 goals in 1,116 appearances. If his career ended with a freelance job in New York, he never really left this city. Despite his death, he is still everywhere: a statue in the city center, on banners reading “Obrigado rey” (“Thank you the king”), on huge frescoes in his likeness or on buildings bearing his name. , such as the training center of Santos FC.

After the 24-hour funeral vigil, the “king” will pass one last time through this stronghold he loved so much in a triumphal procession that will take him from the Santos FC stadium to the four chambers of the city to the cheers of the crowd , particularly passing by his mother’s house, which is about to turn 100. To finally return 500 meters from his point of departure: he will be buried in the vertical ecumenical necropolis of the city and will rest on the ninth floor, in the family mausoleum, with his eye on the ground that made him famous. Eternally.

The statue of Pelé in the city center.
The statue of Pelé in the city center. ©Romain Houeix, France 24

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