Bradley Lowery, the football mascot whose beaming smile touched thousands of people around the world, has died after a battle with a rare cancer, his family said.

The six-year-old Sunderland fan struck up a close friendship with star striker Jermain Defoe after he was diagnosed with neuroblastoma.

In a statement on the family's Facebook page, Bradley's mother Gemma Lowery said: "My brave boy has went with the angels today 07/07/17 at 13:35, in mammy and daddies arms surrounded by his family.

"He was our little superhero and put the biggest fight up but he was needed else where.

"There are no words to describe how heart broken we are.

"Thank you everyone for all your support and kind words. Sleep tight baby boy and fly high with them angel."

Bradley and Defoe were pictured snuggled up together at the youngster's home in Blackhall, County Durham last week after the little boy had a party in bed as a way of saying goodbye.

As Bradley continued to fight for life, Defoe broke down in tears on Thursday at a press conference with his new club, Bournemouth, when he was asked about their special bond.

The Premier League star said: "There is not a day that goes past where I do not wake up in the morning and check my phone or think about little Bradley because his love is genuine and I can see it in his eyes.

"It is special."

Bradley was a mascot for Sunderland several times last season and found a place in the hearts of thousands of football fans around the world.

Supporters of different clubs made banners and chanted his name at games.

He was an England mascot at Wembley when Defoe scored on his return to the Three Lions side.

And Defoe was guest of honour at a huge party thrown for Bradley's sixth birthday in May.

Supporters had hoped a massive fundraising effort last year could get him to the US for pioneering treatment, but his heartbroken family announced at Christmas that his cancer was terminal.

They kept his many well-wishers around the world up to date by using social media and in his final days, his mother, Gemma, revealed that Bradley's health was deteriorating quickly.

Scotland and Stoke City midfielder Charlie Adam paid tribute on Twitter, saying: "He was a little fighter."

Former England striker Stan Collymore said the football authorities should create a lasting tribute to the little boy.

He wrote on Twitter: "Would love to think @FA and @premierleague could mark @Bradleysfight by way of a trophy or award to commemorate an incredible life."

Alan Shearer said: “So sorry that little @Bradleysfight has passed away. An inspirational life cut way too short. Thoughts with his amazing family & friends RIP”

Bradley's beloved Sunderland led the tributes to their mascot, describing him as "an inspiration".

The club said it extended its love to his parents Gemma and Carl and his brother Kieran.

A statement said: "Bradley captured the hearts and minds of everyone at our club with his indomitable spirit, tremendous courage and beautiful smile, which could light up even the darkest of rooms.

"Despite battling neuroblastoma for much of his all too short life, he demonstrated a bravery and fortitude beyond his years that humbled us all.

"He was truly an inspiration.

"His heart-warming friendship with players and staff alike epitomised the impact this wonderful little boy had on everyone he met.

"He had a special relationship with Jermain Defoe and their feelings for each other were evident for all to see.

"Jermain, naturally, is heartbroken.

"Bradley's story not only touched our club and our fans, but also the wider football community.

"Football can be a powerful force for good and our sport came together to embrace Bradley's fight in a unique way."

Sunderland is playing its first pre-season friendly against Bury FC tonight, at Gigg Lane, where a minute’s applause will be held tonight. 

Bury FC tweeted: "Everyone at Gigg Lane is deeply saddened to hear the news regarding Bradley Lowery this afternoon after such a brave fight....

"We will be holding a minutes applause for Bradley ahead of this evenings game with @SunderlandAFC to pay our respects to him and family."

Sunderland goalkeeper Vito Mannone, who joined team-mate Jermain Defoe at Bradley's sixth birthday party on Friday, said his heart was broken.

The Italian told his Instagram followers: "I wished this day would never come.

"My heart is broken and I have no words but i want to remember your incredible smile and I am honoured that I met you and had the chance to spend fantastic moments with you little Bradley and your family.

"It is like losing one of my family and from today I will have someone more to make proud anytime I step onto a football pitch.

"I am sure god have a place for you up there where you can spend amazing moments playing football without suffering anymore.

"My prayers go to all the family and people connected to @bradleysfight. I will miss you forever kiddo. RIP."

Easington Labour MP Grahame Morris, whose contstituency covers Blackhall, tweeted: "Deeply saddened to hear of the death of Bradley Lowery. His smile and bravery has inspired us all. He won't be forgotten."

Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, tweeted on his arrival in Durham for the Miners’ Gala: "Heartbreaking to hear that Bradley Lowery has died. I'll never forget images of Defoe & Bradley when he was Sunderland and England's mascot."