Brazil began three days of national mourning following the death of legendary footballer Pelé, bringing the country together in a rare moment of unity to grieve its most famous son.

The man considered the greatest player in the history of the sport, known simply as “The King” in his homeland, passed away on Thursday afternoon at the age of 82 after a battle with colon cancer.

Antonio da Paz was among those who gathered on Friday to pay their respects outside the São Paulo clinic where Pelé died. “I feel sadness,” said the street vendor, 67, who had built a makeshift shrine with the national flag and photos of Pelé in his prime. “He brought joy to the Brazilian people.”

Venerated for his dazzling runs and prolific goalscoring, Pelé’s three World Cup victories — in 1958, when he was just 17 years old, 1962 and 1970 — remains a record today.

At home, the football icon born Edson Arantes do Nascimento was celebrated as a national treasure who transcended barriers of class, race and politics in one of the world’s most unequal countries.

“I was watching the news last night and cried,” said Carlos Henrique Jesus Santos, 39, a builder. “The legacy he leaves will be eternal.”

Visitors look at the life-size statue of Pele in a bright-yellow Brazil jersey, with the No. 10 stamped on the back, displayed in a glass case at the Pele Museum in Santos, Brazil, Friday, December 30 2022
Visitors look at the life-size statue of Pelé in a glass case at the Pelé Museum in Santos, Brazil © Matias Delacroix/AP

Pelé had undergone treatment following the removal of a tumour from his large intestine in September 2021. He was admitted to São Paulo’s Albert Einstein Israelite Hospital a month ago, with a lung infection aggravated by Covid-19.

As his health deteriorated in recent weeks, family members posted photos from his bedside. Doctors confirmed the cause of death as multiple organ failure connected to his cancer.

“I don’t follow football, but he was a real ace,” said Zelia Murilo, 52, who was at the hospital to attend a medical exam. “May he rest in peace.”

Guimarães, her 29 year-old son, lamented how Brazil had failed to win the recent World Cup in Qatar as a final send-off for the great man. “It would have made him so happy.”

Pele and his son Edson Cholbi do Nascimento wave with children during during the centennial anniversary celebration of the team in Santos, Brazil, April 14 2012
Pelé, centre top, and his son Edson Cholbi do Nascimento, top right, wave with children during the centennial anniversary celebration of the team in Santos, Brazil, April 14 2012 © Nelson Antoine/AP

Brazilian television and radio broadcast back-to-back coverage of the life and times of the sporting icon. “Pelé has died, if indeed Pelé can even die,” read the front cover of daily newspaper Estado de S. Paulo.

The side of a building on Paulista Avenue, São Paulo’s main thoroughfare, was lit up with Pelé’s image, while the national colours of green and yellow were projected on to the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro.

The public outpourings of grief have overshadowed the upcoming inauguration on Sunday of the country’s next leader, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, which takes place in a tense atmosphere of polarisation.

Yet Pelé’s passing brought an uncommon consensus between political foes. Outgoing president Jair Bolsonaro used a rare public speech since his defeat to bitter rival Lula in October to pay homage to Pelé.

“[He] took the name of Brazil to the four corners of the world. Today the whole world mourns with the passing of Pelé and we mourn here too,” Bolsonaro said on Friday. Lula, meanwhile, spoke about his “privilege” to have watched Pelé play live.

Pele’s body will be taken to Santos, the city in São Paulo state where he spent his entire football career in Brazil for a public wake on Monday at the stadium he once graced. It will be followed by a procession of his coffin through the city’s streets the following day, before a private family burial.

Although he retired from professional football more than four decades ago, Pelé’s appeal cut across generations. “It’s very emotional to be here,” said Giovanni Machry, a 24-year-old clothing entrepreneur who was also at the hospital to pay tribute. “He was an ambassador for Brazil. He didn’t need a passport in any country.”

For many Brazilians, the sadness of Pelé’s death was mingled with pride for the man who put their country on the map. “Edson Arantes do Nascimento has gone,” said da Paz. “But Pelé will remain in Brazil forever.”

Additional reporting by Carolina Ingizza in São Paulo

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