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With Pelé ailing in hospital, Brazil thrills, then sends the 'king' its love

DOHA, Qatar — Before they bounded over to their reveling supporters, before they clapped their hands and mounted one another's backs, and before they circled Stadium 974 after their latest World Cup victory, the Brazilian players paused and thought of the king.

They gathered at midfield after 90 minutes of prancing and dancing, and a 4-1 win over South Korea. They pulled out a banner with a single word, the single word that has been on a lot of minds here in Qatar.

“Pelé!”

They posed behind it and sent a message to O Rei do Futebol, who watched their game from the Hospital Israelita Albert Einstein in Sao Paulo. He, Pelé, the original icon of this sport, has been undergoing treatment for cancer. Erroneous reports that he'd been moved to end-of-life care briefly shocked the World Cup last weekend. But a respiratory infection aggravated by COVID-19 had indeed hospitalized him, and placed him at the forefront of Brazilian minds.

“Get well soon, Pelé, get well soon,” Brazil head coach Tite said, per a translator. “All of us here are sending you our love.”

So they, Brazilian players and coaches and fans, placed him front and center as they played and cheered some soccer that he, the sport’s only three-time World Cup winner, surely enjoyed from afar. A few fans arrived hours early to hang two banners from the stands behind one goal. One pictured Pelé, in black and white, in his element playing for Santos, his Brazilian club. The other pictured him in old age cradling a soccer ball to his cheek.

He is revered in Brazil for obvious reasons, so much so that when Tite first came across him, the now-61-year-old coach trembled in awe. “Pelé is possibly the only person,” Tite said, “that [had me] physically shaking when I met him.”

Tite told the story at a news conference here in Doha, speaking with "my heart on my sleeve," as he said. It was during the 2018 World Cup draw, when Tite was focused on groups and matchups. He was eschewing pictures with other coaches and soccer legends, avoiding schmoozy chaos, when somebody told him: "Tite, go say hi to Pelé." He froze. He soon rose to his feet, "but I was shaking," he said. "My hands were sweating and my heart started beating faster. I said, 'Wow.'"

Pelé, now 82, is a global icon, and that's why players from multiple countries thought about him and tweeted about him on Saturday, when reports of his worsening condition first appeared. That's why the Aspire Tower, a skyscraper hotel just outside the Khalifa International Stadium, lit up with Pelé's picture and name that same day.

Responding to those reports, Pelé and/or his representatives took to Instagram and wrote: "My friends, I want to keep everyone calm and positive. I'm strong, with a lot of hope and I follow my treatment as usual."

His reassurances dispelled the worldwide shock. But in Brazil, where he was once declared an unexportable “national treasure,” he remained in prayers.

In Qatar, spontaneous tributes have been difficult to arrange, in part because wardrobes were packed weeks ago when flights to Doha departed. A few fans scrawled their well wishes on flags. A few had brought their Pelé jerseys all the way from South America, and wore them Monday night, but most were back at home.

Thousands of them, however, sent messages with their voice and hands when the diehard Seleção supporters behind one goal unfurled a pair of tifos, one with a hulking depiction of Pelé in his classic all-white Santos kit with his iconic No. 10 on the back. “GET WELL SOON,” it read. It was greeted with applause.

It was Neymar, then, who, at the final whistle, retrieved the banner that the team had prepared. It showed Pelé at the World Cup, in one of his happiest moments, the type of moment the current players will hope to recreate over the coming two weeks.

The king will be watching.

"I'll be rooting for each one of you," he wrote in a Monday tweet.

And the team will be rooting for him.

“Right now, we just ask that everybody, regardless of their religion, pray for him,” assistant coach César Sampaio said through a translator. “Pray, and send him positive energy.”