Besides Pele's home, another Tres Coracoes tourist attraction is a statue in homage to O Rei, smack bang in the centre of the city. The bust's unveiling in 1970 brought the city to a standstill. A friendly between Santos and Atletico Tres Coracoes (now Tricordiano) was organised to mark the occasion and ended in a 2-1 win for the hosts. It was the biggest celebration ever witnessed until his return in 2012, for the inauguration of a replica of his house.
The most popular site to stay in Tres Coracoes also catches the eye. During Goal's stay at Hotel Calabreza, the same lodgings Pele used to use on his rare visits to the city - for security reasons he tends to visit family members while avoiding staying in their homes - O Rei can be glimpsed everywhere. There is an enormous photograph in the lobby, while in the restaurant guests can take in more images and even a signed copy of his birth certificate.
The king of football is logically in the minds of the entire town and is both the main topic of conversation and a permanent source of controversy for the dwellers of Tres Coracoes. Goal spoke with several residents along the narrow streets of the town, as well as taxi drivers and store owners, and there is more than a little discontent in the air. Citizens complain that Pele abandoned Tres Coracoes and seldom visits his hometown.
Jorge Jeremias and Ana Maria, cousins of O Rei and Tres Coracoes residents, confirmed that he was scarcely to be seen in the streets of the city, but defended their relative; as did Silvia Novaes, history teacher at the Luiza Gomes school.
"People around here do not understand that he is a citizen of the world. He has a lot to do and he does not have much time to come here. He is not just ours, he is the whole world's, and he should be respected by the people because he is our greatest pride. When you talk about Tres Coracoes people remember Pele. If it was not for him, nobody would have heard of the city," she pointed out.
Fellow teacher Jose Maria agrees. "People believes that Pele does not care about the city, but he put Tres Coracoes on the map. He is a citizen of the world and that is what counts. He is a great figure and we should know how to use him, but we don't. People usually write letters asking for shirts and they do not get an answer, then they think it is because he didn't like the city, you see what I mean," he laughed.
In Varginha, for example, they throw a huge party for the 'Alien', which never goes there, here we have Pele, the best player in history and we have never fully realised it. Pele is a brand, everyone on earth knows who he is. If you travel and say you are from Pele's hometown that already stands out," he adds, referring to a rival city which claims to have seen an extra-terrestrial.
The teacher's complaint makes a lot of sense; the city government has never worked out how to make the best use out of their connection with O Rei. Usually when the municipality seeks out Pele, it is to plead for financial help. The image of the No. 10 was badly exploited by Tres Corocoes. The best ideas involving Edson Arantes do Nascimento, it might be added, were thought out with the help of Jose Maria himself.
"I am a huge admirer of our most illustrious neighbour, Pele, and a tourism enthusiast in Tres Coracoes. I carry the flag here and I have worked hard to change the mentality that persists in the city. I was part of the committee that welcomed him on his last visit, the unveiling of Casa Pele, and I started and was part of the project to create the replica of the house he grew up in. I also created projects in the school for the kids so they would have an idea of what he representes. We should give him the respect he deserves, and at the same time use his name and image to benefit Tres Coracoes, starting businesses and spreading the city's name across the world."
The love-hate relationship in Tres Coracoes with her most illustrious son seems to be related to longing. Pele moved to Bauru, in Sao Paulo, when he was just three and a half years old, according to his mother, but it was in the Mineiro town where it all began. The residents only want more visits from O Rei, something that now, at his advanced age and with his health problems, is even more difficult. The truth is that Pele deserves to be more loved across Brazil, just like Diego Maradona in Argentina. The eternal No. 10, the best player of all time, is ours, he is from Tres Coracoes, and his image should be used more by the city, which must welcome home its prodigal son.