Pele turned Santos into globetropping entertainers and champions, so it was fitting his coffin appeared on their pitch | The Sun
3rd January 2023

PELE'S wake took place with his coffin placed in the centre circle of the pitch at Santos, the club he represented from 1956 through to 1974.

He lay in state in his own field of dreams – and the message of the occasion was that if you build a wake, they will come.


People came in their thousands. There were plenty around at 4 o’clock on Monday morning when the coffin arrived from Sao Paulo, driven down from the metropolis to the coastal city of Santos.

And despite the summer heat the people – of all ages – queued up for a couple of hours outside the ground so that they could solemnly walk past his coffin and pay their respects.

This is a story that is global, national and local. Much has been made of the global effect of Pele, doing more than anyone else to establish the event as a made for TV extravaganza that brings the planet to a halt for a month every four years.

And his importance to Brazil is obvious. When he first appeared for the national team Brazil were all potential and no reality.

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By the time he had finished they were three times world champions and had won the Jules Rimet trophy outright.

The local side of the story may be the one that is least well known – which is a shame because it is truly extraordinary.

When I first moved to Brazil back in 1994 I was desperate to see Santos in action. This was Pele’s old team, one of the few Brazilian clubs I had heard about. Imagined them to be the biggest of them all.

I was in for a shock. There was little glamorous about the side I watched in that year’s Brazilian Championship. They were thoroughly mediocre.

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And I had been wrong to expect much more. After all, the population of Santos is less than half a million, making it a small city by Brazilian standards.

And yet for most of the Pele years this club had been getting the best of the giants from the metropolis – the likes of Corinthians, Palmeiras and Sao Paulo.

It is as if, year after year, Brighton were capable of outperforming not only the likes of Arsenal and Tottenham, but also any other challengers. For most of the Pele years, Santos had a claim to be the best club side in the world.

There is no other Brazilian club remotely like it. All of the other major teams come from the big local capital. Santos are a glorious exception.

In large part, of course, it was Pele. But the great man also had a huge slice of luck. He joined the club in 1956. The year before, for only the second time in their history, Santos had won the Sao Paulo State Championship.

By chance, Pele slipped into a team full of top class performers, making it much easier for him to bed in as a professional.



There was inside forward Jair Rosa Pinto, one of the stars of the 1950 World Cup. There was Pagao, the first of the many clever and gifted centre forwards with whom he could combine.

And coming through the ranks there were the likes of left winger Pepe, with his cannonball shot, and Zito, the key midfield enforcer of Brazil’s first two World Cup triumphs.

Soon these legends were part of Pele’s supporting cast, as Santos won the South American and world club titles of 1962 and 63.

The former came against Benfica of Portugal. After only losing 3-2 in Rio, Benfica considered themselves favourites for the second leg back in Lisbon. But Pele ran riot.

In what he rated his best ever performance he helped put Santos 5-0 up. Benfica scored two late consolation goals, but the destiny of the title had already been decided.

In the mid 60s Santos pulled out of international competition. In the days before television revenue it was all but impossible to recuperate the travel costs.

Instead they paid for Pele and his team-mates by spending much of their time wandering the world playing lucrative friendlies.

This had its benefits – Santos tours helped develop the game in Africa, for example. But it is a shame.

Imagine if Sants had been the South American champions of 1968, rather than the rough housers of Estudiantes from Argentina. Their meeting with the Manchester United of Best, Law and Charlton would surely have been the stuff of legend.

In his last game for the club Pele knelt mid match in the very centre circle where his coffin has been lying. Once he had gone, the club inevitably slipped back.

In the current century Santos have rallied as a result of fine youth development work, with a succession of generations spearheaded by the likes of Robinho, Neymar and Rodrygo.

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There are worrying signs, though. Gaps are opening up in the Brazilian game. Big city clubs have worked out how to monetise their fan bases. Santos are having to sell their youth products early just to stay afloat. The future is a cause for concern.

But Pele will be watching it all. His last resting place is a vertical cemetery with a ninth floor view that overlooks the stadium. Perhaps from beyond the grave he can still have an inspirational effect.



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