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Brazilian city of Santos bids farewell to ‘king of soccer’ Pele

A man takes a picture of the vehicle transporting Brazilian soccer legend Pele's body, at the Vila Belmiro stadium in Santos, Brazil, January 2, 2023. REUTERS/Diego Vara

The Brazilian coastal city of Santos, which sporting giant Pele turned into a byword for soccer brilliance during a glittering club career, prepared to bid goodbye to its hero on Monday with a 24-hour wake.

A memorial will be held for Pele, who died on Thursday at the age of 82 after battling colon cancer, at the Vila Belmiro stadium, the home of Santos Football Club.

“The expectation is huge, the whole world will be here,” said local fan Roberto Santos. “Pele needs no presentation. Pele for us is everything”.

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Edson Arantes do Nascimento – Pele’s given name – was born in 1940 in the small country town of Tres Coracoes, but moved to Santos in 1956 and lived there for most of his life.

“Pele leaves millions of Santos fans across our country. He was the creator of Brazilian soccer,” said fan Antonio da Paz, waiting outside the stadium for the memorial set to begin at 10 a.m. (1300 GMT).

Pele’s body arrived under fireworks in Santos – a city of about 430,000 people – in the early hours of Monday from Sao Paulo’s Albert Einstein Hospital. On Tuesday, a procession carrying his coffin will pass through the streets of Santos, ending at the Ecumenical Memorial Necropolis cemetery, where he will be buried in a private ceremony.

Santos’ press office said some 5,000 journalists from all over the world had been accredited to cover the wake of the only man to win the World Cup three times as a player, who also scored more than 1,000 goals for Santos.

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People started gathering outside the stadium on Sunday, taking pictures next to a statue of Pele.

Street vendors were selling Santos and Brazil jerseys with his name. Inside the stadium, the structure for the wake was ready amid messages such as “Long live the King” and “The only man to stop a war.”

Several authorities are expected to attend the memorial, including newly sworn-in Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Vice President Geraldo Alckmin – a longtime Santos supporter – and FIFA President Gianni Infantino.

Sao Paulo state military police said in a statement they had prepared a special operation called the “King Pele Operation” to ensure public order.

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“I’ll be here all day, 24 hours, from 10 a.m. to 10 a.m.,” fan Roberto Santos said. “Pele deserves it”.

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