Fans unfurl a giant banner of Pele at 900 Park, a fan zone in Doha, Qatar, before Brazil’s World Cup match against South Korea on Monday, December 5, 2022 [Teo Kermeliotis/Al Jazeera]
Thousands of singing and dancing Brazil fans have been cheering for their team at the FIFA World Cup in Qatar, but in their hearts they have been saying a silent prayer for their “king”, Pele.
When Brazil cruised past South Korea for a place in the quarter-finals, these fans had a simple request for the team: Win the World Cup for Pele.
Pele, whose real name is Edson Arantes do Nascimento, has been battling colon cancer, and was hospitalised following a respiratory infection last week. He was part of Brazil’s World Cup-winning teams in 1958, 1962 and 1970.
“For us, Pele is the king,” said Arlem, a Brazil fan from Rio de Janeiro, as she pointed to an imaginary crown above her head. “We love him. We idolise him and we want him to live a long and healthy life so he can watch Brazil win the World Cup.”
While many fans present in Qatar for the 2022 World Cup have grown up hearing tales of Pele’s greatness and watched old videos of his goal-scoring prowess, some were lucky enough to watch him play live.
Flamenco, a football fan from Colombia, saw Pele play in Mexico City when Brazil beat Italy in the final of the 1970 World Cup. “Pele will always be the best footballer ever,” he told Al Jazeera.
Flamenco said Pele’s achievements make him stand out among all those who have come before and after him. “Diego Maradona was very good, and Lionel Messi is a wonderful player but Pele? He won three World Cups, how can anyone match him?”
Ronnie and Mary Portillo, a Colombian couple who grew up watching Pele weave his magic, agreed. “As he grew in stature, he took the sport to new heights,” Mary said.
Pele sits at the top of Brazil’s all-time goal-scorers’ list with 77 goals in 92 matches. Mary credited Pele and his Brazilian side of the 1960s with introducing the concept of “jogo bonito” (the beautiful game) to the world, and said, “Brazilians are the best players, they always play jogo bonito.”
There was plenty of jogo bonito on display on Monday night as Brazil scored four goals in their first knockout game of the current World Cup, and looked like scoring plenty more.
Before the team took to the pitch at Stadium 974, they were sent a motivational message by the legend himself.
In a message posted on his Instagram account on Monday, Pele told the Brazil team that he would be following the game from his hospital bed.
“I’ll watch the game from here at the hospital and I’ll be rooting for each one of you,” he wrote.
The 82-year-old icon urged Brazil to extend their record of World Cup trophies by winning another one in Qatar.
Brazil fans sending their support to Pele 🙏 pic.twitter.com/f8aPFSRchd
— GOAL (@goal) December 5, 2022
The team, in turn, held up a large Pele banner as they celebrated their win with the fans.
Afterward, the players dedicated their win to Pele, and said they would like to lift the trophy for him.
“He needs a lot of strength from us and this victory is for him, so that he can come out of this situation and that we can be champions for him,” said Vinícius Júnior, who scored Brazil’s first goal.
At the stadium, yellow-shirt-clad fans of the Selecao – as the Brazilian team is known – celebrated their team’s win with joyful abandon.
But the mere mention of Pele’s name evoked a different set of emotions in them. Renato Pelaquim, from Sao Paulo, struggled for words to explain what Pele has meant for several generations of Brazilians.
“He put Brazil on the world map with his football, and brought many years of hope and joy to the Brazilian people,” Pelaquim said. “By bringing three World Cup titles to Brazil, he (Pele) gave immeasurable happiness to people who had seen years of hardships and sorrow.”
Now, Pelaquim said, it’s time for the current generation of Brazil’s stars to step up for their hero.
“Our country is going through an economic and political turmoil again, so we need this team to do the same and make people forget their pain, and give Pele his last wish,” he said.
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