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Hundreds of thousands of Brazilians bid Pelé final farewell

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Today soccer fans in Brazil said a last goodbye to Pele, the master of the beautiful game. They paid their respects to the soccer star at a 24-hour-long wake held at the stadium of his former club. Then a fire truck carried his casket around the city of Santos and delivered it to his final resting place. Well, we are joined from Santos, Brazil, by reporter Ana Ionova, who was there watching it all. And, Ana, sounds like what an amazing, what a rich day you have just witnessed in the city that Pele made famous. Tell me what you saw.

ANA IONOVA: Yes. It's been quite something watching this unfold. So Pele's wake is drawing to a close today, but people are still pouring out on the streets to mourn this country's biggest soccer hero, really. The crowd was lining up yesterday and then all night. Some had traveled hundreds of miles to say goodbye. And there's a lot of chanting and cheering on the street as people waited for the casket to exit the stadium. Many of them wore the white and black Santos shirts that Pele made so famous. And outside the stadium, I talked to Claudia Diegues, who was actually craning her neck to catch a glimpse of Pele's casket as it left the stadium today. Now, she told me about just how important Pele was in making Brazilians proud of their country.

CLAUDIA DIEGUES: (Through interpreter) It is Pele's symbolism for our city and for the whole world. I'm from Santos. I was born here. I always rooted for the Santos Club, just like my dad who played football. Pele gave our country visibility. He showed the rest of the world that we also have good things here.

KELLY: I was struck, Ana, just watching the pictures streaming in of the streets so jammed with people as you describe. And their arms are in the air. And they're all saluting as the coffin passes. Do you have any crowd estimates, how many people came out?

IONOVA: Yeah, definitely. It was really impressive. We don't know for sure yet, but some estimate that at least 230,000 people passed through here in 24 hours. Many of them were ordinary people of all ages, some with small children or elderly relatives. Some athletes, artists and politicians from around the world also came to bid their farewell. And of course, this morning, we had President Inacio Lula da Silva, who also came by to pay his respects. When he came out, the crowd went wild, erupted in cheers both for Pele and for Lula.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting) Lula, Pele, Lula, Pele.

IONOVA: Now the casket will be taken to a cemetery overlooking the Santos Stadium, where Pele will be laid to rest.

KELLY: I suppose it tells you something about his stature in the country that the president came out to pay respects to Pele. Why exactly is he's such an important figure to Brazilians?

IONOVA: Well, Pele's story just resonates with so many people here. He was a poor Black child who used to shine shoes before turning into a global superstar. Outside the stadium, I spoke to Juno Rodrigues Ferreira, a Black man from the city of Sao Bernado do Campo. And he told me he credits Pele for breaking down barriers for future generations, too.

JUNO RODRIGUES FERREIRA: (Through interpreter) What really stuck with me was seeing Pele with his white Santos shirt, No. 10. I think seeing this Black man in it symbolized so much. He opened up the world to Black people.

IONOVA: So as you heard here, Pele is seen as a hero who overcame inequality and racism to get to the top.

KELLY: That is Ana Ionova in Santos, Brazil, covering the funeral procession for Pele. Thank you.

IONOVA: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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