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Thousands of fans in Brazil are lining up to say goodbye to Pelé

ROB SCHMITZ, HOST:

Thousands of fans are saying goodbye to the man known in Brazil simply as the king. This morning, Pele, for many the greatest soccer player in the world, lies in a casket mid-field at the stadium of his former club in Santos, Brazil. We're joined by reporter Ana Ionova, who is in Santos. Ana, hello.

ANA IONOVA, BYLINE: Hi. Good morning, Rob.

SCHMITZ: So Ana, describe the scene for us, please. What's it like there in Santos?

IONOVA: Sure. So let's start with the stadium - people lining up in the scorching sun for up to two hours in a line over a mile long yesterday, just to get a chance to say goodbye to their hero. Vendors were selling water and fresh juice and barbecued meats. They've been fans of all ages, from small children to the very old. Some brought their entire families, and many were traveling hundreds of miles just to pay their respects. And there will be many more today. There were lots of hugs and tears and lots of raw emotion. This is where Pele became the soccer icon the world knows today. He played at the local football powerhouse for 18 years. And he led Brazil to three World Cups. So it's a very symbolic place for a last goodbye.

SCHMITZ: It sounds so emotional. Pele was obviously a soccer legend. But, Ana, remind us how big he is among just everyday Brazilians.

IONOVA: Well, in Brazil, soccer is the national passion. And Pele, more than any other player, brought glory to the pitch. And it's worth remembering that Pele played for a very long time. He retired after playing professional soccer for more than 20 years. Fans packed stadiums all over the country to see him play. Outside, I spoke to Mr. Ademir dos Santos, who is from Bauru, a city in Sao Paulo countryside, about 250 miles away, where Pele actually lived and first began playing football. Mr. dos Santos told me he's here to pay homage to Pele, who he first saw play in 1958.

ADEMIR DOS SANTOS: (Through interpreter) I watched many of his games. Like everyone always says, he is a man blessed by God. Losing Pele, it doesn't just mean something to me. It means so much to the whole world. We will never have another king of football.

SCHMITZ: Wow, we will never have another king of football. In many ways, Pele was much more than just a football player for Brazilians, right?

IONOVA: Yes. In many ways, Pele's reach went far beyond the pitch, actually. In Brazil, one of the most unequal countries in the world, he's a symbol of hope for many people. He was a poor Black child who used to shine shoes. And he rose to extraordinary global success. So this inspires and resonates with many Brazilians. Outside the stadium, I spoke to Taisa Vicente, a local Black woman from Sao Paulo who actually broke down in tears while talking about what Pele has done by simply representing people like her and her family.

TAISA VICENTE: (Through interpreter) It brings such nostalgia. I remember my mother, when I was little, saying how good it was to see Pele play. So talking about Pele, saying goodbye to Pele, is also saying goodbye to one of ours, a man who toppled all prejudice with sport and showed us what art is.

IONOVA: And at the end, she said, Pele is eternal to us.

SCHMITZ: That's reporter Ana Ionova in Santos. Thanks so much, Ana.

IONOVA: Thank you, Rob.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.