SAO PAULO, Brazil (AFP) — Tributes poured in from across Brazil and beyond on Friday for football legend Pele as the country held three days of mourning for the player widely regarded as the greatest of all time after his death at age 82.
Emotional Brazilians flocked to the Sao Paulo hospital where "O Rei" (The King) died Thursday, and to the Vila Belmiro stadium in Santos, the city where he played most of his career — and where his wake will be held Monday.
That will be followed on Tuesday by what is expected to be a massive funeral procession through the south-eastern city, then a private burial ceremony.
President Jair Bolsonaro declared three days of national mourning through Saturday, as condolence flooded in from football superstars, global dignitaries, and fans from all walks of life.
In Pele's hometown, the south-eastern city of Tres Coracoes, house painter Marcelo Cazone proudly brandished an autographed picture of himself as a boy with Pele, which he snagged by cutting school to follow his idol around the city in the 1980s.
"I treasure it to this day," he told AFP. "His death is devastating for this whole town, for all of Brazil, for the entire world."
In Santos, 46-year-old Caroline Fornari was among those who flocked to the stadium where Pele first dazzled the world.
"He's part of our history. My father was a huge fan, he talked about him from the time I was little. Pele is our greatest pride," she said of the three-time World Cup winner — the only player in history to achieve the feat.
The football world also paid emotional tribute to the man who both transformed the sport and transcended it.
Brazil star Neymar said Pele made football "into an art". France's Kylian Mbappe said his legacy "will never be forgotten", and Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo called him an "inspiration to millions".
Argentina's World Cup-winning Captain Lionel Messi simply wrote: "Rest in peace."
The Italian football federation announced a minute of silence before upcoming matches in Pele's memory, while both the English Premier League and France's Ligue 1 said games would be preceded by a minute's applause.
In testament to Pele's influence, international figures including US President Joe Biden and President Barack Obama, Brazilian music legends Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil, International Olympic Committee chief Thomas Bach, and FIFA President Gianni Infantino also paid tribute.
Born on October 23, 1940 in Tres Coracoes, Edson Arantes do Nascimento grew up selling peanuts on the street to help his impoverished family.
He was given the nickname Pele for his mispronunciation of Bile, the name of a goalkeeper at Vasco de Sao Lourenco where his footballer father once played.
Pele exploded onto the scene at age 15 when he started playing professionally with Santos. He led the club to a flurry of titles, including back-to-back Intercontinental Cups in 1962-1963.
At just 17 he helped Brazil to its first World Cup championship, in 1958.
That was followed by World Cup titles in 1962 and 1970. The latter marked the pinnacle of his career as he starred on what many consider the greatest team of all time, alongside talents such as Rivellino, Tostao and Jairzinho.
Pele scored a world record 1,281 goals in 1,363 matches during his more than two decades playing with Santos (1956-74), the Brazilian national team, and the New York Cosmos (1975-77).
But beyond the many benchmarks he set he will be remembered for revolutionising football, his number 10 on the back of Brazil's yellow shirt one of the most powerful images of the "beautiful game".
The first global football star, he played a key role in making the game a sporting and commercial powerhouse — and made millions himself.
He was often welcomed like royalty when travelling abroad. Legend has it that his arrival in Nigeria in 1969 prompted a 48-hour truce in the bloody Biafra war.
His influence extended beyond the pitch, with gigs as a movie star, singer and sports minister.
But he faced criticism at times in Brazil for remaining quiet on social issues and racism, and for what some saw as a haughty, vain personality.
Unlike Argentine rebel Diego Maradona, one of his rivals for the title of greatest of all time, Pele was seen as close to those in power — including Brazil's 1964-1985 military regime.
Pele had been in increasingly fragile health in recent years, battling kidney problems and colon cancer — undergoing surgery for the latter in September 2021 followed by chemotherapy.
His public appearances grew increasingly rare, and he frequently used a wheelchair.
But Pele remained active on social media even as his health failed, cheering on Brazil during the World Cup in Qatar and consoling the pre-tournament favourites when they were eliminated in the quarter-finals — just three weeks before his death.
The flags of all nations were lowered to half-mast at the headquarters of world football's governing body FIFA on Friday, in honour of the game's "eternal king".