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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

‘Long live the king’: Brazil lines up to honor Pelé

Thousands of fans waited for hours outside to pay homage to Pelé.

By Jack Nicas

At 6 a.m. on New Year’s Day, Antônio da Paz boarded a bus for the funeral of soccer icon Pelé and rode the four hours to Santos, Brazil, where his idol was set to lie in state.

When he arrived, he was a full day early — and the first in line. He had no chair, no blanket, no pillow. Just a homemade crown, a plastic World Cup trophy and a Brazilian-flag jumpsuit.

“I slept with just my shirt and a hat so it wouldn’t hurt my head,” da Paz said Sunday, recalling his night on the concrete. “But it was worth it because he’s the king. A man who brought Brazil to the world — through him, through the ball.”

The love, the adoration and the reverence for the man that Brazilians and many others call the king of soccer was on full display Monday in Santos, a port city that Pelé put on the map as the electrifying star of its soccer club for 18 years.

Santos opened the doors to its 16,000-seat stadium at 10 a.m., and a steady stream of fans began filing past Pelé’s body, which was lying in a dark coffin at midfield, covered in flowers and draped in a veil. The stands around him were draped with banners of his likeness and a message: “Viva o rei” (“Long live the king”).

Outside the stadium, fans from across Brazil and beyond had lined up to pay their respects, with the line taking nearly two hours to reach the stadium by late morning. There were fathers with daughters, mothers with sons, and vendors selling beer, fried snacks and roses in the shade of the colonial architecture. One man hurriedly handed out pizzeria menus to anyone who would accept one. The conversation everywhere was about one thing. “Above him, only God,” one man said to another while passing by.

“The atmosphere here is a bit of sadness and a bit of joy — sadness because he died and joy because of the people who saw him play and are talking about his history,” said Marcelo Alves da Silva, 41, a risk-investment analyst who attended the event with his 4-year-old son, Mathias, on his shoulders. Da Silva had taken the day off, and he drove the two hours from Sao Paulo. “It was important to show my son,” he said.

But not everyone was prepared to enter. Onofra Rovai, 91, has lived across from the entrance to the stadium for 50 years and said she had met Pelé various times over the years. From her second-floor perch Monday, Rovai, a retired sewing teacher, watched the crowd snake into the stadium, but she said she would not be joining it. “I want to remember him alive, as he was before,” she said, dressed in a Santos jersey. “For me, he didn’t die.”

Toward the end of the line, da Paz was returning from a lunch of rice and beans — he hardly ate during his 24 hours in line — and was now on his way to get back in the queue.

Then someone approached and slapped him on the back. It was Renato Sousa do Santo, a 68-year-old driver who met da Paz when they both began waiting outside Pelé’s hospital in Sao Paulo last week when news emerged that he was nearing death. They had hoped to enter to perhaps meet the soccer star, but instead they were stuck outside and started a friendship on the sidewalk.

“They wouldn’t let us enter, so we just stood there, just like we are here,” Sousa said. “We put signs up on the wall, and all the reporters would come and talk to us.”

Then another voice shouted from the distance: “What’s up, gentlemen? Didn’t I say I would be here?”

It was Marcolino Olímpio de Oliveira, 62, a painter from the Sao Paulo suburbs. He had also met da Paz and Sousa outside Pelé’s hospital, part of a small group that gathered in the final days of the star’s life. Now they were together again at his funeral.

“Pelé was everything,” Olímpio said, carrying a large book about Pelé. “Everything he did, he did well, from playing, singing, acting.” Olímpio said he watched one of Pelé’s films recently. “I cried twice,” he said.

The men got in line together. Two hours later, they were passing by Pelé’s coffin. As he walked across the field, da Paz shouted and held aloft a homemade sign that said, “Brazil lost the king, but your work will not be forgotten by the Brazilian people.”

After he exited the stadium for the second time, da Paz’s plan was clear: “I come straight out and back in again.”

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