Neymar led football’s emotional tributes to Pele after the Brazil legend’s death on Thursday as the Paris Saint Germain star said his iconic compatriot had transformed the sport “into an art”.
Pele passed away aged 82 after suffering “multiple organ failure” following a long battle with cancer and football’s current and former stars were 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 in 2018.
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,” tweeted PSG forward Mbappe, who scored a hat-trick in France’s defeat against Argentina in the World Cup final earlier this month.
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.”
Manchester City’s record-setting striker Erling Haaland joined the tributes, saying: “Anything you see any player doing, Pele did it first. RIP.”
‘The greatest of all-time’
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,” 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.”
Hurst’s World Cup-winning team-mate Bobby Charlton added: “Pele was a truly magical footballer and a wonderful human being. It was an honour to have shared a pitch with him.”
FIFA president Gianni Infantino wrote on Instagram: “Pele: Immortal - forever with us.”
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.
German great Franz Beckenbauer played with Pele at Cosmos and encapsulated the global outpouring of affection.
“Today, football lost the greatest man in its history, and I lost a unique friend,” he said.