BESIDE THE Khalifa Stadium is the Torch Tower wrapped in an LED screen that displays live scores, faces of goal-scorers and montages from games. For the past two days, it has been beaming a tower-sized image of Pele in a green jersey. On a ticker underneath flashes the message: “Get Well Soon, the Greatest.”
Outside the Lusail Stadium, a wall has been painted with Pele’s smiling face. The drones flying over the Corniche, the seafront promenade where fans flock, drew a Brazil shirt with Pele’s name and number 10 on the back. In the stands, when Brazil took on Cameroon Thursday night, a 10-feet flag was waved with the side of his face in the backdrop of Brazil’s flag. At the Flag of Tree enclosure in Souq Waqif, there is a rush to click selfies with his life-size wax statue.
Ever since Pele, battling colon cancer for a year, has been hospitalised for respiratory issues in Sao Paulo, and reports that he has been moved to end-of-life care began to file in, the football world that has converged in Qatar has been praying that he recovers soon as well as keeping a close watch on his health updates.
Adriana, a Brazilian fan, says whenever she calls home, she asks about his health, as if he is her grandfather. “He is the most popular person in the country, bigger than the president, bigger than anyone else. He is like a father, grandfather, brother to all of us. When I heard that he was on life support, I felt like crying. Hopefully, he will soon recover, and see us win the World Cup,” she says.
They don’t call him by his name in Brazil. It’s always “he”, “him” or the “King”. On Monday’s round-of-16 game against South Korea, she expects more tributes to pour in. “You can expect more faces with his flags, more jerseys with his name. I have been trying to get one, but I couldn’t, and we will be cheering louder. This one for the greatest,” she says.
There is a genuine belief that Brazil could win the World Cup, their sixth. The team, even without the talismanic Neymar, exudes flair and depth. The defeat against Cameroon, but with a second string side, was an aberration, they feel. “We played well, but could not score a goal. Now, we have to win, and win it for Pele. That would be the perfect gift,” says Adriana.
Before leaving for Qatar, the team had a video meeting with Pele among other legendary “Selecao” like Ronaldo and Ronaldinho. Pele wished them good luck and the team promised to reclaim the title they won exactly two decades ago. “It’s a usual thing, and I heard that they did it this time as well. He was weak, but cheerful,” says Luciano Fontes of the media outlet “Zero Fora”. He says an army of reporters had been deputed to Pele’s house and hospital to track developments. “You know everyone wants to see his health report first, everyone wants to talk to his daughter first. I have only one prayer, nothing should happen to him before the end of the World Cup. I wish he gets to see that sixth star on our crest,” Fontes adds.
Two days before Brazil’s opener against Serbia, Pele posted a picture of himself after winning the 1970 World Cup. The message underneath read: “The last time I wore the shirt of the Brazilian team, we inaugurated the three stars above the crest. Now we have five. I can’t wait to add the sixth star.”
Whenever a Brazilian footballer or a member of the support staff turns up for a press conference, the first question would invariably be on Pele. Coach Tite, with his characteristic wit, said: “He is our biggest extraterrestrial representative. We all want to wish him good luck and a fast recovery.” Last year, Pele had publicly appreciated Tite’s work with Brazil, called him reliable and appreciated the team’s style of play under him.
On Sunday, Tite recalled their first meeting. “He is the only person in front of whom I started to tremble 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 pulse was racing. I was thinking, ‘I will have the opportunity to thank the man for an entire generation’. I thanked him,” he said.
Not just Brazilians, players from other countries too wished for Pele’s recovery. France striker Kylian Mbappe tweeted: “Pray for the King.” England captain Harry Kane offered his support at a press conference ahead of his team’s last-16 tie against Senegal: “We send our best wishes to him and obviously all his family as well. He is an inspiration amongst our game and an incredible footballer and incredible person. We wish him well.”
In a sense, it’s a distraction that Brazil did not want. But Luciano believes that it could only inspire them to add the sixth star to their crest. The appeal of Pele, football’s first global star, is universal. He appears on the stamps of nearly 60 countries. Wherever he has played, there is some memorabilia treasured in the gallery.
In Qatar, he is still remembered fondly for an exhibition game in 1973 against local club Al Ahli. Some say that was the exact moment the country fell in love with football. The same would ring true for several other countries without a deep footballing culture. And the world now holds its breath in hope, clutching onto the rosary beads, that the Greatest recovers and Brazil wins another World Cup.