Neymar led the tributes to Pele after the Brazil legend’s death on Thursday as the Paris Saint Germain star said his iconic compatriot had “transformed football into an art”.
Pele passed away aged 82 after suffering “multiple organ failure” following a long battle with cancer and the football world was quick to salute arguably the sport’s greatest ever player.
Nicknamed “O Rei” (The King), Pele scored more than 1,000 goals before retiring in 1977.
Brazil forward Neymar hailed Pele, the only man to win three World Cups, in a social media post alongside two pictures of himself with the legend.
“Before Pele, ‘10’ was just a number,” the heir to Pele’s famed shirt number wrote on Instagram.
“But that beautiful sentence is incomplete. I would say that before Pele, football was just a sport.
“He transformed football into an art, into entertainment… Football and Brazil gained status thanks to the King. He has gone, but his magic will remain. Pele is ETERNAL!”
Like Pele, France striker Kylian Mbappe shot to stardom after winning the World Cup at a young age.
Mbappe helped France lift the World Cup in 2018 and also scored a hat-trick in Les Bleus’ dramatic penalty shoot-out defeat against Argentina in the tournament’s 2022 final earlier this month.
Pele had tweeted congratulations to Mbappe when the then 19-year-old became the first teenager to score more than once in a World Cup match — against Argentina in the 2018 tournament — since the Brazilian’s brace against Sweden in the 1958 final.
“The king of football has left us but his legacy will never be forgotten. RIP KING,” PSG forward Mbappe tweeted.
Pele also won the World Cup in 1962 and 1970, with Argentina and PSG forward Lionel Messi one of the few players regarded as close to his equal.
Fresh from cementing his status among the football immortals by winning his first World Cup, Messi posted a Instagram photo of himself with the Brazilian alongside the message: “Rest in peace, Pele.”
Cristiano Ronaldo, who showed a photo of Pele giving the Portugal striker an award, praised him as an “inspiration to millions, a reference from yesterday, today, forever”.
“The affection he always showed for me was reciprocal in every moment we shared, even from a distance,” Ronaldo wrote on Instagram.
“He will never be forgotten and his memory will live on forever in each of us football lovers. Rest in peace, King Pele.”
I have so many memories of Pele, without doubt the best footballer I ever played against (with Bobby Moore being the best footballer I ever played alongside). For me Pele remains the greatest of all time and I was proud to be on the the pitch with him. RIP Pele and thank you. pic.twitter.com/oCpQlw7EIK— Sir Geoff Hurst (@TheGeoffHurst) December 29, 2022
Former England World Cup winner Geoff Hurst played against Pele in the 1970 World Cup – Brazil winning a group stage match between the countries 1-0 — and he rated the forward as the best he ever faced.
“I have so many memories of Pele, without doubt the best footballer I ever played against (with Bobby Moore being the best footballer I ever played alongside),” tweeted Hurst, who was the first man to score a World Cup final hat-trick in England’s 1966 victory against West Germany.
“For me Pele remains the greatest of all time and I was proud to be on the pitch with him. RIP Pele and thank you.”
The English Football Association, who lit the Wembley arch in Brazil’s green and yellow colours as a tribute to Pele, said: “His unique talent lit up the game and inspired football.”
Joining the emotional tributes, Barcelona and Poland striker Robert Lewandowski wrote on Facebook: “Heaven has a new star as the world of football has lost a hero.”
Didier Deschamps, a World Cup winner as a France player and in his current role as Les Bleus manager, said Pele had “inspired dreams”.
“With the death of Pele, football has lost one of its most beautiful legends, if not the most beautiful. Like all legends, the King seemed immortal,” Deschamps said.
Pele was a trailblazer throughout his astonishing career, helping popularise football in the United States when he joined the New York Cosmos.
He made his last appearance as a professional in New York, representing Cosmos in one half and his former Brazilian club Santos in the other.
“During three seasons with the Cosmos, Pele helped transform the domestic landscape of the sport of soccer. Where once there had been baseball diamonds, now there were also soccer pitches,” the Cosmos said in a statement.
“Pele’s name will forever be synonymous with sporting artistry and genius. His lasting impact on the sport of soccer is inestimable.”
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