This queue was beautiful. It was a manifestation of the legacy of joy in the game that Pele created

A few months ago it seemed that most of Britain would be patiently queuing on the streets of London to pay tribute to the Queen.

On Monday, at the end of three days of national mourning for Pele, the man many of us revere as the greatest footballer of all time, Brazil turned its eyes to Vila Belmiro, a stadium in the port city of Santos, and formed its own version of the Queue to pay tribute to his king.

That queue was a beautiful thing. It was a football queue. It was a manifestation of the legacy of joy in gaming that Pele created. People had come to mourn his passing and to take part in what was designed as a public wake for him ahead of his funeral on Tuesday, where a funeral procession will meander through the streets and past his mother’s home before a private family ceremony, but it felt like they also came to celebrate all that football means to them.

Thousands queued outside the Vila Belmiro stadium in Santos to pass Pele's coffin

Thousands queued outside the Vila Belmiro stadium in Santos to pass Pele’s coffin

It felt like the tens of thousands who had gathered here came to celebrate the joy Pele brought to all of us. They had come to celebrate football’s community, its brotherhood and sisterhood, for this was a line where mothers held single white roses and fathers wept openly as they passed Pele’s coffin and sons their shirts over their faces crumpled to hide their tears and daughters bowed their heads.

This was a queue with people wearing the bright yellow jerseys of the Brazilian national team, the jersey that for many of us embodies “the beautiful game” and immediately evokes a thousand memories of Pelé at the 1970 World Cup, which was the most brilliant flowering his genius. This was a queue with some wearing jerseys that simply bore the names of the 1958 team that won the World Cup for Brazil for the first time. Pele was 17 when he lit this tournament.

This was a football queue so people cried but people sang too. “Ole, Ole, Ole, Ole,” they chanted as they approached Vila Belmiro, “Pele, Pele.” Many wore the black and white Santos shirts. Some wore Brazilian green and gold bikinis. Some men came shirtless, their tops tucked into their pants. Along the line, tributes to the only man to win three world championships were hung on buildings and doors. “Obrigado, Rei,” many of them said. “Thank you, king.”

The line snaked its way a few blocks from the stadium, past open-air neighborhood bars where old men sat on bar stools sipping afternoon beers in the heat, one eye on the TV screen showing fans cheering on Pele’s coffin passed, and another eye on the pool table in front of it.

Street vendors made a significant trade selling Pele No. 10 jerseys to football fans

Street vendors made a significant trade selling Pele No. 10 jerseys to football fans

Street vendors made a brisk trade in bottled water. Next to the damp, shallow canal that ran down the middle of the main street outside the stadium, more and more vendors hung up these yellow Brazil shirts with a new message on them. “Pele: Eterno,” it said.

Pele’s coffin had been taken to Santos in the middle of the night – where his genius was first introduced to the world in 1956, where he played for 18 years and where he scored more than 1,000 goals for the club alone – and in the middle of the night by the Fans were greeted by the roadside with torches and soaring, exploding firecrackers as he made the journey from Sao Paulo’s Albert Einstein Israelite Hospital, where he died last week at the age of 82.

It was just after 9.30am when the coffin was carried across the sidelines at Vila Belmiro by men in Santos tracksuits and carefully lifted onto a pedestal in the center circle inside a large, open-sided marquee filled with beautiful flowers and rows of chairs. This was Pele’s final journey on this turf, where he once danced past defenders and scored at will. The lid was lifted from the coffin and a thin, gossamer veil was carefully and lovingly placed over Pele’s face before the first fans were admitted in the crowd crammed in the street outside.

The stadium had been turned into a shrine to Pele. “Viva o Rei,” read a sign in the stands. The accent above the ‘e’ in ‘Rei’ had been turned into a crown. “O Unico a Parar Una Guerra,” read another banner, “the only one to end a war,” referring to the time when Pele’s arrival for a game with Santos in Nigeria prompted a truce in a raging civil war there Had led . The scoreboards at each end of the stadium displayed a digital image of a gold crown next to the Santos badge.

Men in Santos tracksuits carried Pele's coffin into the stadium on Monday morning

Men in Santos tracksuits carried Pele’s coffin into the stadium on Monday morning

At the far end of the arena, overlooking the pitch on which he had brought joy to so many for so long, another sign hung limp in the muggy morning heat. It referred to young blood and Pele being eternal, and then it just said, “Voce e Rei”. ‘You are king’. When fans were allowed to enter the stadium, the first thing they did was through it on their way to Pele’s open coffin.

Outside, the crowd swelled and dignitaries arrived. Gianni Infantino, the FIFA President who last made friends with despots in Doha, was one of the first to pay his respects. There he announced that FIFA would ask all 211 confederations to name a stadium after Pele.

The crowd outside kept growing. Some wondered if the figures might have been affected by the fact that Brazilians spent much of the previous day watching Lula run for a third term as president after his narrow defeat to his far-right predecessor Jair Bolsonaro in last month’s elections President was sworn in. TV news here has been split between coverage of Pele’s death and coverage of the death of former Pope Benedict XVI.

One of the first mourners to make it into the stadium was an old man holding a plastic replica of the World Cup on his head in one hand and a sign with a long message in the other. He was keen to hold up the sign for the hundreds of photographers, reporters and news crews who had gathered at a booth in Vila Belmiro to read.

The stadium was adorned with a banner bearing the'King' of football, who died at the age of 82

The stadium was adorned with a banner bearing the ‘King’ of football, who died at the age of 82

“We have lost Pelé,” read the sign, “but his legacy will never be forgotten by the Brazilian people. And he will always be forever. Pele will always be the best in the world. And he will never be forgotten.’

The outpouring of love for Pele seems almost universal here. Current players such as Neymar, another former Santos player, have staunchly supported and praised Pele, speaking effusively about the impact he has had on them and Brazilian football throughout his career, winning the World Cup in 1958, 1962 and 1970, scored a record 77 goals for his country and became football’s closest global ambassador to football.

The man Pele came closest to becoming a spiritual heir to Brazilian football was Zico, who was the star of the 1982 team, spreading so much joy to a new generation of fans and doing his best to capture the expressive, creative and cheerful 1970s football mimic team. So it seemed appropriate to speak to him about what Pele meant to the country.

“Any player who comes into the Brazilian national team does so with a tremendous sense of responsibility,” Zico told me recently at his soccer school in Rio de Janeiro. “Pele took that responsibility incredibly seriously and it could be reflected in how he helped Brazil gain global recognition.

“Pele was very important to our national identity. He was an ambassador for us. I know they sometimes say the same thing about Bobby Charlton in England, but it’s not quite the same. Sure, sometimes people say “ah, Bobby Charlton” when they say you’re from England, but there are other things they might be thinking of.

Fans have paid their own tribute to saying goodbye to a Brazilian cultural icon following his death

Fans have paid their own tribute to saying goodbye to a Brazilian cultural icon following his death

“You have the queen, for example. Brazil has a President and foreign leaders might confuse him with other foreign leaders, but nobody would confuse Pele with being from somewhere else. Pele was Brazil and Brazil was Pele.’

This is what people were waiting for on Monday, queuing in the streets around Vila Belmiro in the heat. They not only paid tribute to the greatest soccer player of all time, but also to someone who became the country’s cultural icon, someone whose enjoyment of the game led people to also associate Brazil with beauty, happiness and success.

Perhaps the grief was greater when the great Brazilian racer Ayrton Senna was killed at Imola in May 1994 than here when Pele died, but that’s partly because Senna was a young man when he died and Pele old and old had been frail for some time. Senna was James Dean, forever young, while Pele hadn’t kicked a soccer ball in a serious game for nearly half a century.

Nevertheless, his legend endures. And while the world cheered Lionel Messi for crowning winning the World Cup in Qatar with Argentina last month, Pelé’s death reminds us that he has lifted the trophy three times.

That’s why people stood in line on Monday in the heat. That’s why this old man wore the plastic replica of the World Cup on his head. So on Monday I queued for two hours to pay my respects. As people passed his open coffin and turned to face Pele, whose face was covered with a delicate, transparent veil, many turned their heads, unable to comprehend that their king was dead. This queue was beautiful. It was a manifestation of the legacy of joy in the game that Pele created

Maureen Mackey

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