SANTOS, Brazil — The city, it appeared, was asleep. The streets were empty, the shops were closed and a dog howled in the distance. Then, a few blocks from the soccer stadium that put the port city of Santos on the map, there were signs of life. Lots of it.
Popcorn vendors. Men grilling meat. A group hawking T-shirts. And a hair salon charging for its bathroom.
It was 3 a.m., and thousands of people were queued in an orderly line stretching around two-thirds of a mile, waiting to see the body of one of history’s most magnificent athletes in its final moments before entombment. The soccer star Pelé’s 24-hour wake was in its 17th hour, and by the looks of the crowd, one day might not have been enough. The Santos soccer club estimated that 230,000 mourners had been through the stadium.
“This is no sacrifice,” said Walter Henrique, 35, a tax analyst who traveled three hours to the wake and had to be at work in five hours, yet had another few hours before he would be through the line. “He gave us so much joy that it’s a pleasure to be here.”
The predawn crowd in Santos had different reasons for arriving at such an hour. Mourners had clogged the roads from São Paulo, ensnaring many people in traffic. Some had gotten off work late, or they wanted to avoid the midday sun. And still others had believed that if they came while the city was sleeping, they would avoid the line.
“It was not a good strategy,” said Vinícius Fortes, 58, a software engineer who arrived with his family at 1:15 a.m. local time and found a much longer queue than expected. “I was voting to not stay. I said, ‘Look, we’re going to wait for two hours to be near a box for 10 seconds.’”
He was outvoted. Now his family had waited two hours, and it appeared they had another hour to go. “But every day you go home and sleep,” Fortes added. “This is a moment in your life you are going to remember forever.”
Fortes’s 27-year-old son, Guilherme, was the only one who had to work in the morning, but he appeared unfazed, even when they read on the news that the line had been paused for 30 minutes because officials were changing the flowers. “I’ve made worse decisions in my life,” he said.
The mood not exactly somber, but the crowd was sober. One street vendor, Ednalva Cruz da Silva, had a pile of booze on ice, including cans of Brahma beer and a bottle of Johnnie Walker whisky, but no one was partaking. Instead, she was selling waters and soda. “Usually it’s about 100 beers to every water,” she said. “That’s not the idea tonight.”
Still, the line got a little louder as the stadium approached. One group in particular was leading the way with chants for the Santos soccer team — which included references to the time in 1967 when Pelé’s presence prompted a cease-fire in a civil war in Nigeria.
The group had become something of an attraction at an event where everyone was looking for a distraction. The nine men had met in line, bonding over the previous three hours: a police officer, a supermarket clerk, three high schoolers, two chefs, a Rastafarian carpenter with a soccer ball and the owner of an industrial-automation company in an ankle-length robe and head scarf. He had worn the outfit to the World Cup in Qatar, but had sewn on a Santos patch hours earlier, and now had been posing for photos for hours.
“Pelé was the king,” said João de Souza, 58, the entrepreneur in the head scarf, wearing sunglasses at 3:30 a.m. “He showed the Brazilian spirit to the whole world, showed that Brazil has guts.”
Pedro Camargo de Souza, 17, a high school junior in the group, said he had taken public transportation for three hours to arrive. “I came alone because I’m the only Santos fan in my family,” he said. “They thought I was crazy but what were they going to do?”
As they neared the entrance, stadium employees ordered the group in a single-file line and ushered them along. “Good evening,” one usher said. “Or good morning.”
At 3:40 a.m., they walked through the gate and onto the field. Silence fell over the crew. There was just the faint sound of Pelé singing a samba tune, “My Legacy,” a track that he released in 2006 and that played on repeat at the stadium as he lay in state.
Many of the men held their phones aloft, filming the flowers; the banner that said, “Long live the king”; and the Jumbotron with an image of a crown.
Then, just as they approached Pelé’s body at midfield — lying in a dark coffin, covered in flowers and draped in a veil — the silence erupted in a roar of more than 100 men. It was one of the Santos fan clubs, shouting a team chant, waving four enormous flags and lighting a flare in a before-dawn tribute alongside Pelé’s coffin.
The nine men looked on in awe, but the line kept moving. Within three minutes, the group was back outside. “I cried,” said Camargo, the high schooler. “I would do it 10 more times, a thousand. I would do it as many times as Pelé scored.”
They convened again next to a van selling grilled sandwiches. They exchanged contacts and recapped the moment. Some were headed home. Others would stay on the street or sleep in their car ahead of the funeral procession through the streets later that day, ending at the cemetery where Pelé’s coffin would be inserted into an aboveground tomb.
“Now he rests in peace,” João de Souza said. “But his legacy, his reign, will be eternal.”
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