With Diego Maradona, Lionel Messi, and Cristiano Ronaldo all releasing official life stories in recent years, it seems fitting that Edson Arantes do Nascimento, better known as Pelé, should get in on the action.
The three-time world cup winner is no stranger to self-promotion, having put his name to everything from computer games to Viagra, and sold diamonds made from his hair. So, is this going to be an ad for the Pele brand, or a sincere exploration of his life? The answer is somewhere in between.
The documentary is the story of Pelé’s life and career, from his humble beginnings in the poorer neighbourhoods of São Paulo to lighting up the world stage and becoming a symbol for everything that is good about the world’s most popular sport. Teammates, opponents, and those close to him recall the remarkable highs, as well as the trials on his way to becoming the greatest of all time.
If there’s one figure in the world that needs no introduction, it’s Pelé, and the man’s ubiquitous nature in the sport is the documentary’s biggest problem. In the 44 years since he hung up his boots, a whole host of books, articles, and tv shows have been dedicated to every step of his journey.
On the big screen, there are film covering many eras in his career – 2016’s Pelé: Birth of a Legend dramatised his younger years, while 2006’s Once In A Lifetime is a fascinating documentary on his time in America with the New York Cosmos. Pele Forever, another documentary covering his life in general, was released in 2004.
As such, it’s difficult to imagine what this new production has to offer, and in truth there are a lot of needless superlatives thrown at you. What the film does have is, well, Pelé. The man himself is heavily involved in the production, offering an insight into the events of his extraordinary life, and a first-hand perspective of the real story director Ben Nicholas and David Tryhorn are telling – the love affair between him and his country.
While still in his teens, he was nothing short of a national god. In him, Brazil saw the athlete who lifted the country out of what was described as its ‘Mongrel Complex’, its belief that it was destined to be a lesser team when compared to the giants of Europe. It’s also interesting to see the country’s reactions to his fortunes even at an early stage.
Pelé’s injury at the 1962 and 1966 World Cups are described as tragedies, and his early emergence as a star mirroring the country’s own evolution into a more optimistic age. Likewise, his dip in form seems to coincide with the country’s tumultuous political climate in the late 60s which saw a dictatorship seize power. The man and the nation seem to be intertwined; a comparison that would seem ridiculous if we were talking about any other figure.
What’s also interesting is portrayals of weakness something you don’t necessarily see in official documentaries of sportsmen. He talks about his temporary decision to quit playing in World Cups after the 1966 exit, feeling broken over his bad luck. Off the pitch, he bluntly admits to being unfaithful, and discusses his apolitical stance even in the most divisive times.
“I love Pelé, but that won’t stop me criticising him” a team mate says as he takes issue with his neutrality. Negative comparisons are made with Muhammad Ali’s political activism, while Pelé himself argues that “I am no Superman”, and that the influence of a footballer would not have helped the situation. It’s not exactly warts-and-all, but refreshingly honest given so many other biographies can airbrush history.
With the great man advancing in age (he sits in a wheelchair throughout), Pelé seems to be an attempt to officially celebrate his life while he is here to talk about it. There won’t be any shocking revelations for film fans, but it does explore the pressures of having a nation’s hopes at your feet.
Pele is available on Netflix from 23rd February.