(AFP) — President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva led the tributes Tuesday as Brazil said its final farewell to football legend Pele, widely regarded as the greatest player of all time.
Lula, who took office Sunday in a ceremony that started with a minute’s silence for Pele, travelled to the southeastern city of Santos to pay his respects to family and friends of Pele.
Visibly moved, Lula and First Lady Rosangela “Janja” da Silva paused before Pele’s coffin and embraced his widow and other family members inside the Vila Belmiro stadium, home to Pele’s longtime club, Santos FC.
Tens of thousands of fans, political leaders and football dignitaries including FIFA president Gianni Infantino have filed through the stadium since the wake began Monday morning for the player known as “The King,” who died Thursday at age 82 after a battle with cancer.
The stream of mourners continued straight through the night at the 24-hour wake, which will be followed by a funeral procession and private interment later Tuesday.
Life-long 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 1:30 am, attending the wake alone because her husband was “inconsolable.”
“Pele was everything. He was the King. He deserves this tribute,” she said.
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.
Infantino called Pele eternal and “a global icon of football” Monday, saying football’s governing body would ask all member countries to name a stadium in the player’s honour.
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 have travelled to Santos for the ceremony, though turnout may be dented somewhat by the New Year’s holiday weekend.
Pele’s coffin was carried into the stadium Monday morning 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. She also placed a rosary in his coffin.
The casket was draped in the flags of Santos and Brazil and was surrounded by white flowers, including bouquets from the likes of Real Madrid or current Brazil star Neymar, whose father was in attendance.
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.”
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 favourites when they were eliminated in the quarter-finals, three weeks before his death.
The funeral procession through Santos will go past the house of Pele’s mother, 100-year-old Celeste Arantes, who is still alive.
It will end at Santos’s Memorial Cemetery, where a Catholic funeral service will be held before Pele is interred in a special mausoleum.