SANTOS, Brazil — At 3:57 Monday morning, the Vila Belmiro neighborhood of Santos began to glow.
A swooping helicopter shined its spotlight from a black sky. Firecrackers exploded in neon reds and blistering whites. Lamps in bedrooms flipped on, almost in unison, and more than a few heads poked out the windows of the line of squat, flat-roofed houses.
On the corner, seven helmeted policemen stood stout in front of the old soccer stadium. They were starkly still amid the racket of the fireworks’ pop-pop-pop, save for one officer who shouted a single word into the walkie-talkie pinned to his shoulder: “Chegando! Chegando!”
It was Pelé. A line of vehicles turned onto Rua Princesa Isabel. There was a white police cruiser and a motorcycle. An SUV and another bike. A white passenger van followed by a black Chevy Tahoe. Then, slowly, came the black Mercedes hearse.
An old man watched by the curb. His name is Alemão, and he owns the bar just 25 paces from the stadium gates. He has a tattoo of the club’s crest in the middle of his forehead.
Pelé was Alemão’s friend. Pelé would come to his bar, as a player and in retirement, to talk football. To drink guarana. To get his haircut from Didi, the barber next door whose shop sign says, “Pelé’s hairdresser — and yours, too.”
Alemão needed to be there on Monday, even if it was before dawn. He needed to see. He watched Pelé’s hearse go past and make a left down the side of the stadium. He watched Pelé’s hearse turn right into the stadium’s belly. He nodded and rubbed his hands together as Pelé went. He whispered, “Seu casa,” under his breath. His house.
Pelé played in Vila Belmiro, won in Vila Belmiro, became one of the best-known athletes in history in Vila Belmiro. Then, somehow, he grew even larger, going all over the globe to spread the message of the sport he loved. He died from complications related to colon cancer on Dec. 29 at 82, and the only thing bigger than his fame was the smile he flashed, over and over, in all those pictures and speeches and films and commercials.
It was his life. It was his way. It was what he wanted. For more than a half-century, Pelé belonged to the world. On Monday, he came home.
A DAY EARLIER, while his customers drank from beer cans wrapped in yellow sleeves in the sticky afternoon heat, Alemão sat at a table. “There have been a lot of tears these last days,” he said. “But there should also be a party.”
Pelé played 18 years for Santos and scored a staggering 1,283 goals in 1,367 matches for both his club and his country, according to Brazilian records. He led Santos to 10 state titles, six national titles and two continental trophies. He remains the only soccer player to win the World Cup three times and is regarded by many as the best player the game has ever seen. At his peak, the only athlete who might have even approached his renown was Muhammad Ali.
There was something magical, something sublime about watching Pelé on the field, and talking about it sent Alemão — a thick, doughy man who walks with a slight limp — into a contemplative space. His eyes twinkled. “Lindo, lindo,” he said, describing what it was like to see Pelé dribble. Beautiful.
To take just two examples, Pelé’s pair of goals in the 1958 World Cup final stand as museum-quality pieces of sporting art: In one, he traps the ball on his chest, drops it to his foot, flips it over his head (as well as his opponent) before ripping a shot into the net. On the other, he jumps so high he seems to be stepping on the defender’s skull as he heads a laser past the goalkeeper.
There were countless moments just like these, whether with Santos, a club Pelé elevated out of a small, provincial city on Brazil’s south coast, or later when Pelé came out of retirement to play (and get paid handsomely) in the United States, essentially introducing the sport to Americans as part of the juggernaut New York Cosmos. Wherever he was, Pelé’s strength was relentless.
But the allure of Pelé, the quality that made him an iconic Brazilian, runs deeper.
“It is how he made us feel,” Alemão said, rubbing his thumb over the Santos tattoo on his head (he got it after losing a bet). Brazilians can often be self-critical and, especially in today’s political environment, fiercely divided, Alemão said. With Pelé, though — especially in Santos — there is a sense of gratitude and pride.
“Everything he did with soccer out in the world, he first did here in Santos,” Alemão said. “He built soccer out there, but first he built Santos. He made it into something.”
Just down the block from Alemão’s bar is a tiny house that sits only a few steps from the main gate fans use to enter the stadium. Jose Nunes, who is 84, has lived in the house with his family for 50 years. He specialized in electronics and came to Santos to work at a company for which Pelé was a spokesman. Nunes struck up a relationship with Pelé after helping him set up a television (“He called me a genius, can you imagine?”), and Nunes’s teenage son, Sidnei, befriended one of Pelé’s sons. “When we were 18, I’d go over there and we’d sneak whiskey together,” Sidnei recalled.
Years ago, Sidnei was living in Florida and Nunes came to stay with him for a few months. The two were at a house where some construction colleagues of Sidnei’s were working on installing a new floor, and Nunes accidentally cracked several pieces of tile.
“They were so angry at first, and I didn’t know what to do because I didn’t speak their language, I didn’t know if they’d want money — I was worried,” Nunes said with a laugh. “But once I could make them understand that I was from Santos, that I knew Pelé, they started smiling.
“They were soccer fans from Puerto Rico and they loved Pelé, so they shook my hand. They weren’t mad anymore. They just said, ‘The floor is OK now — you’re from Santos.'”
NUNES DIDN’T GO to Pelé’s wake in the stadium Monday — he worries about COVID exposure, and his granddaughter wouldn’t give him back the autographed Pelé jersey he wanted to wear anyway. So he watched the crowds from his porch, sitting in his chair behind the glass window he slides open when he wants to hear the sounds of Vila Belmiro.
Lines stretched for nearly a mile as hundreds of thousands of people waited hours for their turn to walk past Pelé, whose body lay beneath a white veil in an open casket at midfield.
The mourners came in all ages and life stages. There were shopkeepers and trash collectors, bakers, chefs, architects, students, engineers, retirees and toddlers. Memories hung heavy. Ellie Manhas brought her 14-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son because she wanted them to see what Pelé meant to her grandparents. Paulo Roberto Grosso brought his grandson and told the story of the night he saw Pelé score twice in a 5-1 Santos win. Romildo Peroni Santos, who works on the docks as a third-generation stevedore in this port city, came because as a child he’d heard on a loop how Pelé was like nothing anyone had ever seen.
There were plenty of well-known figures, too: former Brazilian stars, like Ze Roberto; local and national politicians; Neymar’s father; a Brazilian supreme court justice (who said his chambers has a de facto shrine to Pelé in it); as well as FIFA president Gianni Infantino, who suggested that every country in the world should name at least one stadium after Pelé.
But Pelé’s legacy clearly lay in the everyday people who loved his sport. They ate in line, sang in line and sweated quite a bit in line as temperatures reached well into the 80s and they criss-crossed the avenues to get their turn with O Rei. The King.
Each had their reason. Haroldo Stampaccheo is now 62, and he has had the image of Pelé on the field — lanky build, long-sleeve jersey, No. 10 on the back — burned into his brain for as long as he can remember. He first saw Pelé as an 11-year-old, and while he always enjoyed watching Pelé play, those game moments aren’t what brought him to Vila Belmiro.
“My father worked at a bank — every day from 7 to 5, he just worked and worked and worked,” Stampaccheo explained after he emerged from the stadium. “I didn’t see him so much. It just wasn’t like that in that time — we weren’t … close. But on Wednesdays, he would take me in the car because it was a matchday. And the roads were terrible but we would bump and bump and bump our way to the stadium. And we would sit and watch the game and talk about Pelé. My father really, really loved to talk to me about Pelé.”
Stampaccheo paused. Then he looked back at the field and said, “My dad died in 1993. I think I came today because I thought I might see him here, too.”
AWAY FROM THE stadium, a few miles back toward the ocean, Dida Dias finished her usual morning coffee and cut a path among the sandy vacationers and tourists. As she dodged families lugging baskets and beach chairs, she passed one of the many stores with a sign for Pelé out front, but Dias barely looked up.
“It is very, very difficult — especially here — to take a position that isn’t exactly like everyone else’s when it is about Pelé,” she said. “But there are things that matter.”
Dias, a 66-year-old retired professor, has worked as an activist with feminist and anti-racism groups for most of her adult life. She understands the lionization of Pelé — “what he did as a footballer is undeniable” — but believes that shouldn’t erase the feelings of some Brazilians, especially some Black Brazilians who feel there are areas where he fell short.
Throughout Pelé’s career, Dias said, he consistently denied that racism was an issue in Brazil even as he personally experienced it. When he first came to Santos as a teenager, Pelé was sometimes called “Gasolina,” a reference to the color of oil, and even once he became a star player in the mid-1960s, Dias said, he wasn’t allowed to join the exclusive (and all-white) Santos Tennis Club.
Some other Brazilian stars used their platforms. Dias recalled Reinaldo, who played on Brazil’s national team at the 1978 World Cup and famously celebrated goals by raising a fist — which angered the Brazilian military dictatorship.
“Reinaldo was pushed away, left out of the 1982 World Cup team because they didn’t like what he was saying,” Dias said. “Pelé never said anything. He never used his fame in service of the anti-racism movement. He just spent most of his life saying he’d suffered because he was poor, not because he was Black.”
Even in 2014, when the Santos goalkeeper Aranha claimed to have been the target of racist chants from opposing fans, Pelé was critical of Aranha for making an issue of it. “If I were to stop the game or scream … every time they called me a creole or a monkey, then every game would have to stop,” he said then. “The more attention is paid to this, the more this thing will happen.”
Pelé’s charity work, his work with children, his global diplomacy were meaningful, she stressed, and he modeled the importance of higher education, going to college even as many of his contemporaries never did. “That was important, especially for young people here, Black or white, to see,” she said.
“It isn’t about saying he’s not special — of course he was,” she said. “But he was not a god. He was a man. And we should remember that no man is perfect.”
AS THE LINES stretched farther and the wait to get into Vila Belmiro grew to three hours on Monday, Doraci Ribeiro cut flowers.
Ribeiro works at Flor de Lotus, a flower shop across the street from the Cemitério Memorial Necrópole Ecumênica — the peculiar vertical cemetery where Pelé was to be buried.
Ribeiro, who has been a florist for 30 years, acknowledged that the vertical cemetery is “unusual.” Instead of plots in the ground, the vertical cemetery looks like a high-rise apartment building, with floors of graves, ossuaries, mausoleums (and a car museum and aviary in the rear). Pelé’s body will stay on the second floor in a large mausoleum decorated to look like a soccer field so as to be more accessible to visitors.
“It is different,” Ribeiro said, “but people will still want flowers.”
Ribeiro saw Pelé several times, usually at the restaurant next to the cemetery. He always sensed a calmness from Pelé, he said, an ease or comfort with his life, with his place.
So as Ribeiro sat in his white plastic chair at his orange plastic table on the sidewalk tossing stems into a bucket, he began to make small bouquets for the mourners he knew would come to the cemetery across the street. For the blooms, he chose mostly tigerlily and chrysanthemum, he said, because they felt appropriate.
“These are white flowers,” he said. “They bring peace.”
ON TUESDAY MORNING, Luiz Inacio “Lula” Da Silva, Brazil’s newly elected president, came to Vila Belmiro to pay his respects. He was one of the final mourners — some 230,000 came during the 24 hours that Pelé lay in state — and at 10 a.m., the wake was over. Pelé’s coffin was carried outside by eight uniformed cadets and was set atop a fire engine to begin a final trip around the city. A Brazilian flag and a Santos club flag were draped over the casket and a soccer ball hung off the back of the truck.
Alemão was there again. He stared. The last time he’d seen Pelé — when Pelé was clearly struggling physically — he’d said, “King, you looked f—ed up,” and Pelé laughed and replied, “What do you mean? I’m going to play soccer right now.”
The procession began. The journey through the city was languid. Music blared, Samba drums thumped. Horns rang out. Santos songs and chants erupted from storefronts. Children sat atop their parents’ shoulders and waved.
The procession inched along the beachfront, the sand where Pelé played pelada, pick-up soccer, as a teenager. Sergio Fernandes de Aguiar, who played in those games on Saturday afternoons, remembered how Santos officials were so worried that Pelé, their prize prospect, might get hurt that they demanded he only play as a goalkeeper in pelada.
“He had good hands — he was actually an excellent goalkeeper,” Aguiar said, giggling at the fact that he was saying such a thing about a man who was maybe the greatest scorer in history. “We were so young. I just remember so much laughing.”
The crowds along the route began to swell as the procession approached Canal 6, one of the city’s drainage channels that divides Avenida Coronel Joaquim Montenegro. Thousands, including one of Pelé’s old teammates, the goalkeeper Lalá who lives around the corner, squeezed into the narrow road between the canal and a modest, white, rectangular house where members of Pelé’s family, including his sister, Lucia, waited at the second-floor balcony. “I came because we were friends,” Lalá said.
As the procession came near, the fans began to sing a favorite, “Mil Gols,” about how Pelé is the only player to score a thousand goals (no Brazilian has ever cared that FIFA disputes that statistic) and Celeste Arantes, Pelé’s 100-year-old mother, who is in poor health herself, looked out of a window just for a moment.
The fire truck turned down Avenida Montenegro. Police officers cleared a path. The engine stopped directly in front of Pelé’s family’s house, and suddenly thousands dropped their heads in prayer with Pelé’s loved ones.
“Pai Nosso, que estas no ceu,” they all said together, the words ringing out across the canal. Our Father, Hallowed be thy name. “Venha o teu reino; seja feita a tua vontade; assim na terra como no ceu.“
On Earth, as it is in Heaven.
THE FIRE ENGINE approached the cemetery. It came around the bend in the road, rolled past Doraci Ribeiro and the flower shop and then reversed, backing toward the front steps. The eight pallbearers removed the Brazil flag and the Santos flag, folding them carefully. They picked up the coffin. A man named Cassio Mandu stepped forward.
Mandu clutched a trumpet. He is 45 and, despite being an accomplished musician who often plays at ceremonies, he confessed that he was terrified. A light mist was falling and his country’s greatest athlete was coming toward him and his emotions were roiling so much he worried his lips might fail him. “I was scared that I wouldn’t be able to play,” he said.
Mandu put the trumpet to his mouth and the first notes of “Il Silenzio,” a haunting melody about a soldier, flew up between the raindrops as the coffin was lowered down off the truck. In the sky, a helicopter circled. Across the street, two women clutched chrysanthemums. On the second floor of the vertical cemetery, Pelé’s relatives wiped away tears.
Mandu finished “Il Silenzio.” A cheer went up from those behind the fences set on the street, a final shout for their star. Eterno Rei! a man yelled out. Eternal King.
It was time. He had welcomed all who wanted to see him. He had moved through the streets of his city. Now, finally, he would rest.
Mandu lifted his trumpet again. The cadets raised Pelé’s casket high. The first notes of “Amazing Grace” sounded out, soft and steady, as the pallbearers climbed the steps.
Mandu lowered his instrument and wiped his face. It was over. His next job is playing at a wedding.
“Without pain,” he said, looking back toward the cemetery, “we might not know what happiness feels like.”