All around the world, fans have mourned the loss of Pelé, whose unrivaled mastery of the beautiful game catapulted him to a level of celebrity attained by few athletes.
Yet in Santos, Brazil, where Pelé shot to stardom and spent much of his career, his death hit like nowhere else, the loss more personal and intimate.
He arrived in the port city south of São Paulo as a scrawny teenager in the 1950s, and in some ways, he never left. For some, he was a neighbor or a friend who, even after rising to global celebrity, always stopped to chat near on the corner of Vila Belmiro, as the stadium for the Santos F.C. soccer team, where Pelé began his rise, is popularly known. For those who never met him, his soul seems to permeate the place, representing a unifying spirit in Brazil despite, or maybe because of, inequity.
With his funeral set for Monday in Santos, fans flocked to sites around the city to remember Pelé’s legacy, on and off the field, and to bid farewell.
Marcos Martins, 48, civil engineer
I was born here — I’ve always been from Santos. My uncle was also a football player for Santos. He was Santos’s 10th top scorer, so he was on the team with Pelé, he played ball with Pelé.
My uncle always told many stories about him. When Pelé arrived in Vila Belmiro, he was already 28 years old; Pelé was just 17.
It practically raised the bar for football in Brazil. With the arrival of Pelé, everything changed.
He turned Brazil, and also Santos, into a global football reference. Santos is a small city, but it had a football team that was equivalent to, if not better than, some European teams.
And Pelé learned to play the guitar with my uncle. My uncle taught him. My uncle liked to play the guitar. And Pelé liked music, too.
Fernando Perez Jr., 65, lawyer
Hold on, I need a minute. It’s really emotional. It’s really hard.
I’ve seen him play here. I saw his farewell game in 1974. But I also saw him play in 1968, in 1970. I was about 13 or 14 years old when I used to watch him play.
All my brothers were Corinthians (a rival team). I was born here, but they came from São Paulo. So my brothers and my father hated Pelé because he would always destroy their team. He would wipe them out. And I had to run away from home to listen to the games, to listen to Pelé play.
Pelé raised the self-esteem of the Brazilian people. Brazil is a country that suffers a lot. And Pelé gave us that dignity. He made us feel like we can be big, too. And it went beyond football. It’s this sense of “I am, and I can be.”
Manuel Messias dos Santos, 83, retired dock worker
I met Pelé when I was in the military, at the time when he was serving as a soldier. His team in the barracks used to win a lot.
Then when I worked as a warehouse clerk in the Gonzaga neighborhood, where he hung out a lot, he was always on the sidewalk, talking to someone, talking to someone else. He was very much like us, he was a man of the people. He spoke to everyone. Everyone. With children, with old people, with whoever. He talked to everybody — he was a popular man.
Teófilo de Freitas, 68, retired city hall worker
Here at Santos, I’ve been a member since 1975. I’ve been rooting for the team since I was a kid. Inside the stadium, I even played ball with Pelé. It was during a Santos training session in 1972.
All Brazilians like football, so Pelé is an idol for us. He is the idol of football. So for us, it’s heartbreaking — it’s very sad to see him go. Of course, we are all going to die one day. But this is a loss that brings deep sadness to Brazil.
He was a one-of-a-kind person, he was an extraordinary player. Pelé made so many people happy. He was a football genius.
Onofra Alves Costa Rovai, 91, retired seamstress
I’ve been here since 1949. I came here from the countryside. I came to Santos. And right away, I came to live in front of the stadium. I’m a die-hard Santos fan!
From my house, I could see the field. So we used to watch the games from my living room. When he played, the stadium was always packed. Everyone wanted to see him play.
He had something different about him. When he got the ball, he ran and ran. He played football with his heart.
I already met him. He used to stop by here all the time, to say hello. My mother adored him — he always talked to my mother here at the front door.
Mario Mazieri, 66, retired banker
I came from the countryside. I moved here when I was 14 because of Santos.
In the 1960s, when I still lived on the farm, my brothers and I would listen to the Santos game on the radio. There wasn’t any television then, just the radio. So we listened to the games, to the plays that Pelé made, to his goals.
And I decided that I needed to see this with my own eyes. When I arrived in Vila Belmiro for the first time, I was shaking head to toe.
I’m always in this bar here, it’s all “Santista” here. We used to see Pelé around here, too. One day, right over there, I got to shake his hand. It was 2012.
Luiz Fernando Tomasinho, 31, air-conditioner mechanic
Santos was always my team, and it was my dad’s team. I moved here two years ago because of Santos.
Life was hard for many people when I was growing up. And watching Santos brought so much pleasure to the community.
My first football shirt was Pelé, No. 10. I was 7 years old. And with my kids, it’s the same thing. They’re both 7. And I already got them their shirts.
I took them to the stadium today, so they could pay their respects. It’s really sad — it’s heartbreaking.
I never got to see Pelé play. I only saw the photos and the videos. He had this magic, he was different from everyone else.
The kids these days, they do the same thing; they watch his plays on YouTube, and they fall in love with the sport. His legacy is huge.
Lúcia Bueno, 25, project manager
I’m from Vila Belmiro. Many of my memories of the neighborhood have to do with listening to the game and hearing the goal, before it appeared on TV. And it was always a time of getting the family together, to watch the games.
I think he left a mark on many people because of his excellence as an athlete, but there is also the story of him coming from a very poor family.
I’ve always been really involved in Black social movements. And I have come to understand what Pelé meant to people, as this really strong role model.
He played this role in the lives of so many people, by setting an example. He was an extraordinary athlete, but he was also a Black person who was the best in the world.
Gabriel Silva Paulino dos Santos, 20, app developer
I personally have never seen him play. But my father used to watch his games and he would see Pelé walking down the street. As if he were just a normal person.
Today it is already very difficult for poor people to turn into successful players. And in his time, I think it was even more difficult because there were more barriers and it was harder to play. Players fouled hard and didn’t get called for it. Those things were harder back then.
So he dedicated himself a lot, he trained a lot. There’s the story that he trained here on the beach. He trained at the club and trained on the beach here afterward. He was very dedicated.
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