SAO PAULO (Reuters) - In Brazil, soccer is considered an art form. So it is only fitting that the sport Brazilians call "the beautiful game" gets its own museum.
This is the land that produced football greats such as Garrincha, Zico, Romario, Ronaldo, Kaka, and the most famous of all, Pele. It is the only country to have qualified for every World Cup, and the only one to win it five times.
But until now, Brazil has never had a truly national museum honoring the sport that has become synonymous with Brazilian culture. That changed last month when the Museu do Futebol, or Football Museum, opened at Pacaembu Stadium in Sao Paulo.
Upon entering the museum, visitors are greeted in Portuguese, Spanish and English by a life-size image of Pele, who is so revered in Brazil that he is known simply as "O Rei," or "The King."
"The Louvre has the Mona Lisa. We have our own piece of art -- Pele," said Hugo Sukman of the Roberto Marinho Foundation, which helped fund the construction of the museum.
In many ways, the museum is a shrine to Pele, whose real name is Edson Arantes do Nascimento.
One of its most impressive displays is a temporary exhibit with 140 items from Pele's personal collection, including the wooden shoeshine box he used as a boy to earn spare change and the ball from his 1,000th goal in 1969.
The museum traces football's transformation from an elite sport to the passion of the masses in this vast, multiracial country of 190 million people. From the jungles of the Amazon to the slums of cities like Rio de Janeiro and Recife, soccer is a constant that unites Brazilians from all walks of life.
"Inevitably, a museum about football is also a museum about the history of Brazil and Brazilian culture," said Leonel Kaz, the museum's curator.
Much of the museum is interactive, using the latest technology to chronicle the legendary moments of Brazilian football. There is video testimony from renowned sports journalists and Brazilian celebrities recounting the most memorable goals of their lives as the screen flashes to the original footage.
There is an official goal where visitors can have a crack at a penalty kick while a radar gun measures the speed of the ball. There are jaw-dropping highlight reels of Pele and Garrincha, recordings of famous radio announcers calling goals at the top of their lungs, and scores of images and facts from all 18 World Cups.
In one room, visitors don 3-D glasses to watch a four-minute display of two-time world player of the year Ronaldinho dribbling a soccer ball to a samba beat without letting it touch the ground. In another, life-size images of 25 of the greatest Brazilian footballers of all time are projected onto screens hanging from the ceiling, making it seem like they are floating in the air.
Another exhibit tells the story of Charles Miller, the son of a Scottish father and a Brazilian mother of English descent who introduced the sport in Brazil in 1894 when he returned from a stay in England with two soccer balls and a rule book.
Miller went on to found Brazil's first professional football team, the Sao Paulo Athletic Club, and helped spread the game throughout the country well after his retirement in 1910.
The museum, which costs just 6 reais ($2.50) to visit, is already proving a big hit, especially with children.
"Kids today associate museums with old things. This is going to help break that taboo," Fabio Brandao, a 45-year-old advertising executive from Sao Paulo, said after visiting the museum on a recent Saturday.
Editing by Stuart Grudgings and Vicki Allen