When ESPN senior writer Sam Borden was assigned to travel to Brazil to cover the funeral for soccer icon Pelé, he was admittedly a little frenzied: Borden got the assignment early Friday afternoon, Dec. 30, and was on a plane that night at 9:30 ET en route to the services Monday and Tuesday.
But with a game plan, he hit the ground running. His story, Pelé finally comes home, after a lifetime of belonging to the world, published on ESPN.com on Wednesday.
“It was one of those things where, yes, of course, it was last-minute, but it felt like an opportunity to tell a really important story in sports, and that’s the reason we’re in this business, isn’t it?” said Borden.
Pelé, who won a record three World Cups, died Dec. 29 in São Paulo. He was 82.
Borden flew 10 hours to São Paulo and then drove two hours to Pelé’s hometown of Santos. He started his reporting that Saturday afternoon, with invaluable help from “fixer” Flavio Ferreira and support from editor Elaine Teng back in ESPN’s Bristol, Conn., headquarters.
He barely slept Sunday night into Monday so he could be in position at 3 a.m. to see the vehicle carrying Pelé’s casket enter the city.
“My approach with a big story like this is to try to make it as small as possible,” said Borden. “So that was my guiding principle. Let’s be there when the casket arrives. Let’s find the florist at the cemetery, let’s find the guy who’s playing music as the casket comes off the firetruck – I had like 50 other ideas for potential things that could be small details to explore because I think putting those little moments together gives the reader a real sense of place.”
Pele will be buried in the Cemitério Memorial Necrópole Ecumênica. It’s a vertical cemetery, which is unusual. Here you can see his family’s grave as well as the view from in front of it on the 9th floor. The Vila Belmiro stadium, where Pele starred for Santos, is clear. pic.twitter.com/muXP5QV6rW
— Sam Borden (@SamBorden) January 3, 2023
One of those moments happened Tuesday, when the fire engine carrying Pelé’s casket stopped in front of Pelé’s mother’s house. Thousands of Brazilians in the street bowed their heads and recited the Lord’s Prayer together.
“It was one of those juxtapositions of place and event and scene that felt so evocative,” Borden said. “This person matters so much to this city and these people, so I tried to capture what it looked like when they showed that.”
Besides appearing in Borden’s written piece, that scene was the opening to Thursday’s episode of the ESPN Daily podcast – complete with sound that Borden recorded on his phone from the middle of the crowd.
“Telling stories on multiple platforms is what I love most about ESPN,” Borden said. “Anytime I can collaborate with the Daily team, it just makes the entire experience richer.”