Fans around the world have mourned the loss of Pelé, whose unparalleled mastery of the beautiful game catapulted him to a level of celebrity few athletes achieve.
But in Santos, Brazil, where Pelé rose to fame and spent much of his football career, his death struck like nowhere else, the loss more personal and intimate.
He arrived in the port city south of Sao Paulo as a scrawny teenager in the 1950s and in some ways has never left. For some, he was a neighbor or a friend who, even after becoming a world celebrity, always stopped to have a chat near Vila Belmiro, such as the stadium of Santos FC, where Pelé started his rise, in the popularly known.
For those who never met him, his soul seems to permeate the place, representing a unifying spirit in Brazil, despite, or perhaps because of, inequality.
With his funeral scheduled for Monday in Santos, fans flocked to venues across the city to remember Pele’s legacy, on and off the field, and say goodbye.
Marcos Martins (civil engineer, 48)
I was born here – I’m always from Santos. My uncle was also a soccer player for Santos. He was Santos’ 10th top scorer, so he was on the team with Pelé, he played ball with Pelé.
My uncle used to tell a lot of stories about him. When Pelé arrived in Vila Belmiro, he was already 28 years old; Pele was only 17.
It practically raised the bar for football in Brazil. With the arrival of Pelé, everything changed.
He made Brazil, and also Santos, a global football reference. Santos is a small city, but it had a football team that was equal to, if not better than, some European teams.
And Pelé learned to play the guitar with my uncle. My uncle taught him. My uncle liked to play the guitar. And Pelé also loved music.
Fernando Perez Jr. (lawyer, 65)
Hold on, I need a minute. It’s really emotional. It is very difficult.
I’ve seen him play here. I saw his farewell game in 1974. But I also saw him play in 1968, in 1970. I was about 13 or 14 years old when I saw him play.
All my brothers were Corinthians [a rival team]. I was born here, but they came from Sao Paulo. So my brothers and my dad hated Pele because he would always destroy their team. He would exterminate them. And I had to run away from home to listen to the games, to listen to Pele play.
Pelé raised the self-esteem of the Brazilian people. Brazil is a country that suffers a lot. And Pelé gave us that dignity. He made us feel like we can be great too. And it went beyond football. It is this feeling of ‘I am and I can be’.
Manuel Messias dos Santos (retired longshoreman, 83)
I met Pelé when I was in the army, when he served as a soldier. His team in the barracks used to win a lot.
When I worked as a warehouse clerk in the Gonzaga neighborhood, where he hung out a lot, he was always on the doorstep, talking to someone, talking to someone else. He was very like us. He was a man of the people. He talked to everyone. Everyone. With children, with old people, with anyone. He talked to everyone – he was a popular man.
Teófilo de Freitas (retired City Hall employee, 68)
Here at Santos, I’ve been a member since 1975. I’ve supported the team since I was a kid. I even played ball with Pelé in the stadium. It was during a Santos training session in 1972.
All Brazilians love football, so Pelé is an idol for us. He is the idol of football. So for us it’s heartbreaking – it’s very sad to see him go. Of course we all die someday. But this is a loss that deeply saddens Brazil.
He was a unique person, he was an extraordinary player. Pelé has made so many people happy. He was a football genius.
Onofra Alves Costa Rovai (retired dressmaker, 91)
I’ve been here since 1949. I came here from the countryside. I came to Santos. And immediately I came to live in front of the stadium. I’m a die hard Santos fan!
I could see the field from my house. So we used to watch the games from my living room. When he played, the stadium was always full. Everyone wanted to see him play.
He had something different about him. When he got the ball, he ran and ran. He played football with his heart.
I’ve already met him. He always came by here to say hello. My mother adored him – he used to talk to my mother here at the front door.
Luiz Fernando Tomasinho (air conditioning engineer, 31)
Santos was always my team and it was my father’s team. I moved here two years ago because of Santos.
Life was hard for a lot of people when I was growing up. And watching Santos brought so much joy to the community.
My first football shirt was Pelé, No. 10. I was 7 years old. And it’s the same with my kids. They are both 7. And I gave them all their shirts.
I brought them to the stadium today so they could pay their respects. It’s really sad – it’s heartbreaking.
I never saw Pelé play. I have only seen the pictures and the videos. He had this magic, he was different from everyone else.
The kids are doing the same thing these days; they watch his plays on YouTube and fall in love with the sport. His legacy is enormous.
Lúcia Bueno (project manager, 25)
I am from Vila Belmiro. Many of my memories of the neighborhood have to do with listening to the game and hearing the goal before it came on TV. And it was always a time to get the family together, to watch the games.
I think he left a mark on many people because of his excellence as an athlete, but there is also the story that he comes from a very poor family.
I’ve always been very involved in black social movements. And I’ve come to understand what Pelé meant to people, as this really strong role model.
He played this role in the lives of so many people by setting an example. He was an extraordinary athlete, but he was also a black person who was the best in the world.
Gabriel Silva Paulino dos Santos (app developer, 20)
I’ve never seen him play myself. But my dad used to watch his matches and he saw Pelé walking down the street. As if he were an ordinary person.
Today it is already very difficult for poor people to become successful players. And in his day I think it was even harder because there were more barriers and it was harder to play. Players made hard mistakes and were not called for them. Those things were harder back then.
So he devoted himself a lot, he trained a lot. There is the story that he trained here on the beach. He trained at the club and then trained here on the beach. He was very dedicated.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.