“Football is for people who have guts,” opines Pelé at the start of directors David Tryhorn and Ben Nicholas’ non-fiction biopic Pelé, and no one had more guts than the iconic Brazilian athlete. No one had more talent either, which is what made him the most famous, and greatest, footballer in history.
Completing an unofficial sports-doc trilogy from the past year—following ESPN’s The Last Dance and HBO’s Tiger—Netflix’s Pelé (out Feb. 23) revisits its subject’s unparalleled playing career through a deft assembly of archival clips, commentary from relatives, teammates, journalists and politicians, and interviews with Pelé himself. Now 80 years old, Pelé may arrive on camera with the aid of a walker or in a wheelchair, but his effervescent charisma remains intact as he revisits his glory days, which by their conclusion had resulted in an unthinkable 1,283 goals in 1,367 games and three World Cup titles (both records), which rightfully earned him the nickname “The King.”
Pelé was, and is, the Babe Ruth of football, a truly transformative presence who altered the sports landscape through unparalleled skill, grace, and magnetism. As Tryhorn and Nicholas recount, he rose from humble origins, helping financially support his family by utilizing a shoeshine box that, in present-day footage, he cradles like an old friend, even tapping out a lively beat on its wooden surface. His own abilities on the pitch netted him a 1956 tryout with the Santos football club, and he immediately made a gargantuan impression on everyone. Turning pro at 16, Pelé was an obvious prodigy, and by the time the 1958 World Cup rolled around (in Sweden), he had already begun rewriting Brazil’s reputation from a South American outpost that no one thought about on the global stage to a legitimate powerhouse.
Brazil’s 1958 championship may not have been televised, but it nonetheless made Pelé an instant “national treasure” (and still brings tears to his eyes today). Using a wide array of footage from games, news broadcasts, and interviews, Pelé traces the parallel upward trajectories of Pelé and Brazil itself, which saw in the footballer a symbol of hope, of something-to-nothing possibility, and of larger-than-life modern celebrity. Coming on the heels of a traumatic 1950 World Cup loss, Pelé’s maiden title was everything to the country—as one journalist remarks, it singlehandedly reversed the “Mongrel Complex” that wracked Brazil, allowing citizens to once again love themselves. That process only continued in the ensuing years, when Pelé’s football gifts proved so gargantuan that there was arguably no more beloved athlete in the world, not only by fans but by those who played, coached, and covered him.
Even though Pelé would be sidelined for much of the tournament due to an injury, a second World Cup title in 1962 solidified his legend, and Pelé’s raft of black-and-white clips from his contests confirm his preternatural dexterity on the pitch. Moving with a quickness and explosiveness that’s a wonder to behold, Tryhorn and Nicholas’ film lionizes Pelé by simply presenting him in all his competitive glory, making defenders miss, fall, and generally look helpless in the face of his genius. In the span of just four years (1957-1961), he scored a whopping 355 goals, which would be difficult to fathom if not for the fact that the game material on display is so jaw-dropping.
Throughout his ascension, Pelé retained his bedrock modesty, refusing to endorse his coronation as “The King” and relying on—and maintaining close ties with—his teammates, whom he refers to as family, and who all speak lovingly about their captain. That closeness was (and during a recent reunion still is) palpable, and was expected to power Brazil to a third straight World Cup victory in 1966. Alas, that mission was rudely derailed when Pelé and company underperformed against rivals that had decided to take a much tougher approach to stopping the Brazilian superstar (leading to another debilitating Pelé injury). Faced with that crushing letdown, Pelé debated whether to return to the World Cup arena, although as sports aficionados know (and the film discloses in its opening stanzas), a fourth World Cup was in the cards, culminating in an unforgettable 1970 triumph.
Pelé captures the highs and lows of the footballer’s career, and the ways they dovetailed with the nation’s sense of self and its political transformation from a democracy to a dictatorship under General Emílio Garrastazu Médici. In their chats with Pelé as well as with various other speakers, directors Tryhorn and Nicholas don’t shy away from lingering criticisms that the star didn’t do enough to speak out against General Médici’s authoritarian rule, instead opting throughout his football tenure for an apolitical stance. In American sports terms, he was more Michael Jordan than Muhammad Ali, less interested in fighting injustice than in focusing on athletic domination and maintaining a cheery public demeanor fit for the cameras and the numerous advertisers that helped make him the sport’s first millionaire.
“In American sports terms, he was more Michael Jordan than Muhammad Ali, less interested in fighting injustice than in focusing on athletic domination and maintaining a cheery public demeanor fit for the cameras…”
Considering the film’s images of violent assassinations and bloody protests during that era, along with sights of Pelé meeting with General Médici, questions about Pelé’s dogged political neutrality continue to be relevant, especially since Pelé’s present-day explanation for his position continues to be vague nothing-speak (“My door was always open. Everyone knows this. And that includes when things were really bad”). Still, such issues do little to obscure his monumental greatness, which peaked with the 1970 World Cup, and then continued to shine brightly in his final years competing for (and in) Brazil and, afterwards, for the New York Cosmos as a de facto football ambassador to the United States.
At once celebratory and inquisitorial, Pelé stands as a fitting tribute to both the man and the myth, unwilling to turn a blind eye to his shortcomings (which also included a misbegotten first marriage that never should have taken place) and yet perceptive enough to recognize that his failings were secondary to his athletic brilliance and the enormous impact it had on his home country, and the world at large. Many have followed in his footsteps over the subsequent decades, but in just about every respect, none have proven his equal.
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