The clock struck 14:06 when I got in line to say goodbye to Pele. The scorching sun punished from above, but did not frighten those present in line. From the press entrance, I only walked two blocks to get to the bottom, but don’t be fooled: there were a lot of people who had already made their way around the stadium grounds.
Ahead of me, a woman accompanied her daughter. Cristina and Verginia aren’t Santos, but who cares right now? “I love Pelé and this is a unique moment,” her mother told Ana Carolina, whom she met in line. The two became friends as they said goodbye to the greatest player of all time.
A little further back, Fábio Silva shone at the rear. The relentless sun reflected off his spotless white Santos jersey. He wore an autograph on his chest as if it were a trophy: “To Fábio, with a hug, Pelé”.
A 53-year-old DJ, Fábio had won the Peixe shirt by betting with a friend from Corinthians. She was a niece of Pelé, who worked with a relative of Fábio’s, who mediated for his cloak to be immortalized again three months later. Her birthday has arrived. Reliving the story, she shivered again.
A little further back, a louder voice said that he had come to the wake representing his father. Ana Cláudia, 40, has not seen Pelé, but she has heard of her father. At age 85 with rheumatism, she was unable to participate.
Next to her was Iracema Sampaio, 72, who also came alone to greet her. She tried to call her friends to accompany her, but no one accepted. Iracema spent many years imagining the King. In the hinterland of Bahia, she listened to Santos and Brazilian national team matches on the radio. You fondly remember the song “Camisa Dez”, by Luiz Américo, who immediately after the 1970 World Cup asks: “Ten is his shirt, who will replace him?”
Somewhere in the queue, someone says, “Looks like God is playing chess. He’s got the queen, king, and bishop.” It was a reference to the deaths of Queen Elizabeth II, King Pele and Pope Benedict XVI in the same year. Others nod their heads.
The warm weather, the distance from the entrance to the Vila and the nature of the occasion create a tense atmosphere. Conversations are low-volume and face downcast even among those who are presumably not football’s biggest fans. Unlike normal days, the black and white surroundings of Vila Belmiro are more colourful. They are people with shirts from different clubs exposed without fear.
Wearing the Palmeiras shirt, Danilo Pugliese walks calmly down the street, passing in front of the Santos fans’ headquarters: it would be dangerous to do so at any time, except today. Born in São Paulo, he came down from the mountain to spend the New Year and took the opportunity to attend the king’s wake. For him, loving football and not revering Pelé is contradictory to say the least.
Not rooting for Santos did not stop youngsters Felipe and João Pedro Santana, aged 15 and 16, from being present in Vila Belmiro. Wearing Brazil national team and Inter Milan shirts, the brothers heard many stories from their grandfather about Pelé and decided to attend the wake of the man who gave Brazil something they have never seen: the World Cup.
To hear all these stories, I moved a long way down the line. When I got back to where I started next to Cristina and Verginia, I found more people to talk to. Wilton Soares, known as Ratinho, called me to show him a relic: a plastic Pelé doll that he bought for around 15 reais at Lojas Americanas. It was 1977.
Wilton came to the wake with his 11-year-old nephew Nicolas, who asked to be at the Vila. Wilton saw Pele play Nicolas three times only on Youtube. Both have no doubts that Pele was the greatest player who ever lived.
The “Pelézinho” doll was a hit in queue. After showing me around, Wilton worked up the courage to reveal his relic to every camera he saw along the way. He has given so many interviews that his wife and nephew had to wait for him at Vila’s door when they had already entered the stadium.
After about 500 metres, the line took a curve which left a narrow shadow available for the fans. This seemed to lift the mood. It was there that Luís Antônio, 53, appeared with a collection of photos of Pelé in his hand, shouting, “Look at the picture, look at the picture. Last goodbye.”
As no one in the queue seemed interested, the trader vented: “Isn’t Pelé worth 10 reais now? When Marília Mendonça died, the negotiator almost hit me for a photo. I think I’m on the wrong track.” Seconds later he was selling portraits of the king.
Selling photos at vigils is Luís’ job. He says that he was at the vigil for Gugu, João Paulo (with Daniel) and Leandro (with Leonardo). “He’s a vigil, I’m in,” he said quickly before walking off, shouting at the queue.
Across the street, the shirt drying rack prints Pele on the chest of the bell. José Carlos sells it for 50 reais, but only if he haggles a bit. As well as the Santos flag similar to the one placed on the King’s coffin.
The ‘smuggler’, as he likes to call himself, will spend the night on the street. It would be even more so if the vigil lasted longer. As a Santos player, he wants to salute the King of Football on behalf of himself and his father, but will wait for the queue to decrease.
After an hour in line, a cloud dares to disturb the sun’s view of the king’s vigil. objective.
“A thousand goals, a thousand goals, a thousand goals, a thousand goals, a thousand goals. Only Pelé, only Pelé, who played for my Santos.” Reflecting the plurality of supporters of the time, the last verse is not as strong as the first ones and is sometimes replaced by an insult to Maradona.
Leaning against one of the railings that organize the queue, Eduardo Carvalho, 32, loses his gaze on the horizon. In front of the facade of the Vila, a number 10 different from Pelé is printed on the back: the shirt of Cosmos, the King’s team in the United States. San Paolo, he received the gift from his father on the same date that he gave him a Juventus shirt from Mooca.
Eduardo lives in São Bernardo and represents the family at the wake; Dad couldn’t come for work. Both his father and grandfather told different stories about Pele and went to Rua Javari to see the King act. The idolatry for Pele passed on to Eduardo, who simply didn’t see how to not be present at the wake.
When he spoke to me, Eduardo was already past the nearly two-hour queue, greeted the King, and said he’d “stick around, at least until it rains.” After I thanked him for the conversation, he leaned against the railing and lost his gaze towards the horizon, in the direction where Pele’s body was.
The buzz increased as the entrance approached, in a mixture of tension and excitement for reaching the goal. Two, three times the song of the millionaire was sung again as the queue moved faster there.
Little Sofia, two years old, had already fallen asleep in her aunt’s lap in the last meters. Her parents, Lucas de Araújo and Patrícia de Araújo, brought the little one in line directly from the beach. The two are from Valinhos, in the interior, and they leave immediately after greeting the King. The two will not fail to remind Sofia that she was at this moment.
The diversity of wakefulness has received people of all ages. Sofia was not the youngest, an award that perhaps belongs to Phillip, who has four months in the belly of his mother Mariana dos Santos. With a towel in hand, she came before going to the beach accompanied by her father, Eduardo José. Like any dreamy grandfather, Eduardo already says that Phillip is not a player’s name, but that his grandson will play for Meninos da Vila and, one day, hear the story of having been in the retinue of the greatest of all time.
It was at that moment that we passed by the coffin of the King of Football. From the entrance, security guards were already telling the line to move forward, urging anyone who stopped to go to the front. It was allowed to take photos and videos, but walk, not stand still. To the left, with an escort, was the body of the King, covered by the flags of Brazil and Santos.
If Phillip was the youngest, Maria Aparecida Gonçalves is a candidate for the more experienced post. At age 89, Dona Maria braved the two-hour queue with a cane and a custom Santos jersey with embroidery that she made herself.
Hearing that I was a journalist, after passing by the King, she sat on the stairs leading to the steps of the Vila and took from her purse an envelope full of photos. Physical, developed, non-digital photos. This alone would be enough to define it as a relic, but the content is even more relevant.
In the photos, Maria Gonçalves appears not only next to Pelé, at a party in Vila Belmiro, but also next to Maradona. She was the cook of Careca in Naples, where she met the Argentine. When she talks about the honor she has had, Dona Maria avoids the conversation: “I have come to greet my friend. And those who speak ill of me are envious”.
About 1.5 km in queue and an hour and forty duration gave me a certainty. Pele has so enchanted the world that his death has brought together people who have nothing in common but respect for the eternal king of football.
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