They came from across Brazil, streaming to the southeastern port city of Santos to pay their last respects to the greatest football hero ever to captivate the land of the “beautiful game”: Pele.
A line stretching two kilometers (more than a mile) formed Monday outside the Vila Belmiro stadium, home to Santos FC, the club where Pele played most of his storied career — and which held a 24-hour wake for him after his death Thursday at age 82.
Wearing his black Santos jersey, Pedro Stolber and his wife, Clady, were among the first to queu outside the stadium, after making the trip from the southern state of Parana the day after Pele’s death.
“There are no words to describe it. He meant everything to football,” Pedro, a 71-year-old medical engineering technician, told AFP.
“It’s very moving to see everyone paying tribute to him. He’s the King,” said Clady, 67.
Most fans were wearing the black-and-white colors of Santos, which Pele made world-famous.
Widely considered the greatest footballer of all time, Pele scored 1,091 of his 1,283 career goals in his 18 years with Santos, where he made his professional debut in 1956 at the age of 15.
The rest were scored with the Brazilian national team — with which he won an unprecedented three World Cups — and the New York Cosmos, where he played for two years before retiring in 1977.
‘Put Brazil on the map’
Sixteen-year-old Cristian Abreu queued up outside the stadium at 6:30 am, despite the fact that Pele had been retired for three decades when he was born.
“I was never able to see him play, but he’s the legend of the thousand goals. He’s a myth, he’s huge to me,” he said.
Fernandes Jose de Oliveira, a 56-year-old driver, made the 75-kilometer trip from Sao Paulo alone Monday morning.
“Brazil has lost a football icon. Pele put us on the map. He made Santos famous worldwide. We owe him our reverence,” he said.
Inside the stadium, fans were greeted by banners celebrating “The King” and loudspeakers playing a song, “My Legacy,” sung by Pele, who was also a sometime-musician.
“I am Pele thanks to you,” it goes. “My legacy is for you.”
Carlos Mota and his 12-year-old son Bernardo traveled more than 500 kilometers from Rio de Janeiro to honor Pele.
“My whole childhood was influenced by what Pele did for Brazil, by his World Cup wins. He was a national idol,” said Mota, 59.
He was wearing the jersey of Rio club Fluminense — and acknowledged that one of Pele’s greatest ever goals was scored against his favorite team.
“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, who was in a Barcelona jersey, 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.
Other fans wore the jerseys of Santos rivals such as Sao Paulo and Corinthians. But all were united in bowing down to Pele’s legacy.
“He conquered the world. He was very charismatic,” said 29-year-old nurse Kianny Sanches, after waiting three hours to file past Pele’s open black casket.
She carried a bouquet of white flowers to leave at the statue of Pele outside the stadium.
“It was very sad, but I also feel gratitude for all he did for Brazil,” she said.
“We’re known the world over thanks to Pele.”