NEXT TO THE Khalifa Stadium, Torch Tower is wrapped in an LED screen that displays live scores, goalscorers’ faces and match montages. For the past two days, it has been beaming a towering image of Pele in a green jersey. A ticker below flashes the message: “Get Well Soon, the Greatest.”
Outside the Lusail Stadium, a wall is painted with Pele’s smiling face. The drones flying over the Corniche, the boulevard where fans gather, drew a Brazilian shirt with Pele’s name and number 10 on the back. In the stands, as Brazil took on Cameroon on Thursday night, a three-meter flag was waved with the side of his face against the background of the Brazilian flag. At the Flag of Tree enclosure in Souq Waqif, there is a rush to click selfies with its life-sized wax figure.
Since Pele, who has been battling colon cancer for a year, has been hospitalized in Sao Paulo for breathing problems and reports have come in that he has been transferred to end-of-life care, the footballing world gathering in Qatar has been praying for him to recover quickly and keep a close eye on his health updates.
Adriana, a Brazilian fan, says that when she calls home, she asks about his health, as if he were her grandfather. “He is the most popular person in the country, bigger than the president, bigger than anybody. He is like a father, grandfather, brother to all of us. When I heard he was on a ventilator, I felt like crying. Hopefully he recovers quickly and sees us win the World Cup,” she says.
In Brazil they don’t call him by his name. It is always ‘he’, ‘him’ or the ‘king’. She expects more tribute for Monday’s eighth finals against South Korea. “You can expect more faces with his flags, more jerseys with his name. I tried to get one, but couldn’t, and we’ll cheer louder. This one for the best,” she says.
There is a genuine belief that Brazil could win the World Cup, their sixth. The team exudes flair and depth even without the talisman Neymar. The defeat against Cameroon, but with a second string team, was an aberration, according to them. “We played well, but we didn’t score. Now we have to win, and win for Pele. That would be the perfect gift,” says Adriana.
Before leaving for Qatar, the team had a video meeting with Pele and other legendary “Selecao” such as Ronaldo and Ronaldinho. Pele wished them luck and the team promised to regain the title they won exactly twenty years ago. “It’s common practice, and I heard they did it this time too. He was weak, but cheerful,” says Luciano Fontes of the media outlet “Zero Fora”. He says an army of reporters had been sent to Pele’s home and hospital to monitor developments. “You know everyone wants to see their health report first, everyone wants to talk to their daughter first. I only have one prayer, nothing should happen to him before the end of the World Cup. I want him to see that sixth star on our coat of arms,” adds Fontes.
Two days before Brazil’s opener against Serbia, Pele posted a photo of himself after winning the 1970 World Cup. The message below read: “Last time I wore the Brazilian team’s shirt, we have the three stars above the crest inaugurated. Now we have five. I can’t wait to add the sixth star.”
Whenever a Brazilian soccer player or member of the support staff shows up for a press conference, the first question is invariably about Pele. Coach Tite, with his characteristic wit, said, “He is our greatest alien representative. We all want to wish him the best of luck and a speedy recovery.” Last year, Pele openly appreciated Tite’s work with Brazil, calling him trustworthy and appreciating the playing style of the team below him.
On Sunday, Tite remembered their first meeting. “He is the only person I started to tremble for when I met him. It was 2018 and they told me to go to Pele and give him a hug. I got up and I was shaking, my hand was sweating, my wrist was racing. I thought, ‘I’m getting a chance to thank the man for a whole generation’. I thanked him,” he said.
Not only Brazilians, also players from other countries wanted Pele’s recovery. French striker Kylian Mbappé tweeted: “Pray for the king.” England captain Harry Kane offered his support at a press conference ahead of his team’s last 16 game against Senegal: “We send our best wishes to him and of course to all his family. He is an inspiration to our game and an incredible footballer and an incredible person. We wish him the best.”
In a way, it’s a distraction Brazil didn’t want. But Luciano believes it can only inspire them to add the sixth star to their coat of arms. The appeal of Pelé, the first world star in football, is universal. It appears on the stamps of nearly 60 countries. Wherever he has played, there are some memorabilia that are treasured in the gallery.
In Qatar, he is still fondly remembered for a 1973 exhibition game against local club Al Ahli. Some say that was exactly when the country fell in love with football. The same would be true for several other countries without a deep football culture. And the world is now holding its breath in the hope, clinging to the rosaries, that the Greatest recovers and Brazil wins another World Cup.