Pelé might be the best player ever, but his legacy off the pitch will be debated in Brazil for generations to come. At least, that’s the conclusion of a new documentary on Netflix codirected by filmmakers David Tryhorn and Ben Nicholas, who spent hours in Pelé’s company interviewing him on everything from a childhood spent in penury to his numerous affairs and his controversial relationship with the authoritarian regime that ruled Brazil during his playing career
Some will tell you Pelé is the best who ever played, carrying Brazil to two World Cup finals before stepping up to help his nation win both tournaments in decisive fashion. Others will claim he scored 1,000 goals against amateur players while touring rural Brazil in a brilliant Santos team that passed him goalscoring opportunities on a plate. The third take – and this is the one that holds water best – is that there’s no reason these things have to be mutually exclusive.
Football has always been riven with debates about who can claim to be the greatest of all time, whether you’re a Maradona apologist, a Pelé stan, part of the CR7 army (not a real thing, thank God) or one of those who worships at the altar of Messi (this is a real thing at the Camp Nou). Hell, maybe you’re one of those fans who’s willing to stake something on Neymar, even at this point. Ultimately, it’s a subjective and pointless debate and, happily, Pelé, a new documentary produced for Netflix that features the player himself in extensive interviews, does not go down this route.
Pelé, on the other hand, has done. In March 2020, he announced, with all the confidence of a man who speaks about himself in the third person, that, compared to Ronaldinho, Beckenbauer, Cruyff, Zico, Ronaldo, Cristiano Ronaldo and Messi, “Pelé was better than them all.” Great at scoring goals; less good at humility? “Occasionally, people dismiss him as a little bit chippy when he gets involved in this ‘Who’s the greatest?’ argument,” explains Pelé’s codirector David Tryhorn. “There’s an immense pride in terms of what he achieved: ultimately, the rubber stamp of cultural and national identity for his nation. He will get a little upset if that’s forgotten.”
PELÉ: GREAT AT SCORING GOALS; LESS GOOD AT HUMILITY?
Tryhorn and his codirector Ben Nicholas’ film follows Pelé from his childhood in São Paulo state to the 1970 World Cup final against Italy, which Brazil won, courtesy of four goals from the most iconic international football team ever assembled. Gérson, Tostão, Rivellino, Jairzinho and Pelé all played in the final; Pelé scored the opening goal. And the film sets Pelé up as an avatar for Brazil as a nation, a sort of living foundation myth the country had been waiting for until the 1950s. In 1958, Brazil emerged as a footballing power by winning the World Cup against the home team in Sweden, becoming the first non-European team to win in Europe. Pelé was the youngest goalscorer ever in a final, at just 17 (he still is). Meanwhile, his goal in the 1970 final marked his retirement from international football. His two wins perfectly bookend Brazil’s first golden age of football. “When he’s feeling good, Brazil is feeling good, or vice versa,” says Nicholas, “and somehow, for better or worse, the story we show is the two of them having this relationship between 1958 and 1970.”
Pelé also tells a now-standard footballer origin story. Before he was Pelé, the young Edson Arantes do Nascimento became a shoe shiner to help his family when his father, who was also a footballer, was injured and his club stopped paying him. Pelé’s grandparents transported wood via horse and cart for a living and he spent much of his childhood playing with homemade footballs. “We came from nothing and we had very little,” he explains in the film. The same could be said of Brazil itself, which in the 1950s was not regarded a footballing nation. It’s incredible, now, to think of it, but there wasn’t even a national league – football was only played at state level. The national poet Nelson Rodrigues came up with a term to describe what he saw as the contemporary Brazilian mentality: the “Mongrel Complex”, a defeatist attitude.
NELSON RODRIGUES CAME UP WITH A TERM TO DESCRIBE THE CONTEMPORARY BRAZILIAN MENTALITY: THE ‘MONGREL COMPLEX’
Pelé, the film declares, was the rebuttal to this mentality. As if to prove it, everyone from Pelé’s sister to then Brazil manager Mário Zagallo to Jairzinho himself to the former president of Brazil Fernando Henrique Cardoso takes their place in front of the camera in Pelé to talk about Pelé’s greatness. They are full of praise for him – mostly – though, like Asif Kapadia’s excellent Maradona documentary in 2019, the film avoids becoming a hagiography. Instead, they recount the story of the “real” Pelé.
First up for scrutiny is the near-mythological status Pelé enjoys in Brazilian and global culture and the way media and technology combined to make him a star. Using swathes of archive footage of the player grinning for cameras, signing autographs and getting on and off planes, Tryhorn and Nicholas explore how Pelé was the first footballer who had a truly global appeal, because he arrived just as the technology fell into place to be one. Nicholas points out that with the advent of widespread air travel in the 1960s, Santos could fly Pelé and the squad around the world to play exhibition matches against AC Milan and Real Madrid, and beat them. The directors envisioned Pelé as “a 1950s, Old Hollywood studio system star”, a sporting answer to Elvis Presley or Marilyn Monroe, and his rise perfectly coincided with the early televisation of football, which was previously only broadcast on radio. His peak as a player and a global personality, at the 1970 World Cup in Mexico, was the first to be shown in colour around much of the world. “A huge part of the mythology is that yellow shirt under the Mexican sun,” says Nicholas. “You take that away and suddenly it’s a bit weaker.”
The difference between Pelé and Elvis, of course, is that Elvis isn’t around to talk to documentarians. Pelé is now 80 years old – at the beginning of the film, he walks into the frame with a Zimmer frame – but he is the documentary’s most important on-screen storyteller. It took Tryhorn and Nicholas eight months of negotiation with Pelé’s management to get into the room with the man himself, but once they did, they sat and spoke to him for hours, teasing out memories of his childhood and adolescence. “Every time he’s left the house for the last 65 years, [he] has had a microphone pushed in his face,” says Nicholas. “So he has maybe created these stock answers to get himself through interviews. It was about working through those and then saying to him, ‘We want to do something deeper.’”
The result is a pleasingly frank assessment of Pelé’s life and career. When it comes to this on-pitch legacy, he doesn’t budge an inch (why would he?), but he does talk openly, for example, about how his various affairs ruined his first marriage (Pelé has seven known children by four different women, and possibly others). But far more controversial is his involvement with the right-wing authoritarian junta that ruled Brazil from 1969-1985, which he also speaks about.
While Pelé was playing for Brazil at the 1970 World Cup, its president was the military officer Emílio Garrastazu Médici. Under Médici, Brazil’s economy swelled during a period known as the Brazilian Miracle, even as hundreds of people suspected of leftist or anti-government activities were murdered by the state and tens of thousands of others were tortured in custody. Pelé’s Seleçao become a front for ultranationalism ahead of the World Cup and the regime had a strong interest in football as a propaganda tool.
Here, the documentary intercuts footage of Pelé smiling and shaking Médici’s hand with shots of water cannon, police charging rioters on horseback, and dead and injured protesters. Pelé remained studiously apolitical in public for decades, at least as far as being apolitical is possible under a dictatorship, and while the documentary treats his decision as an understandable response to a very real threat, Pelé’s talking heads are not all so generous. Caju, who played alongside Pelé for Brazil in 1970, describes him as an Uncle Tom, a black man who never questioned authority; others negatively compare him to Muhammad Ali. Meanwhile, the journalist Juca Kfouri defends Pelé by pointing out: Ali risked prison for refusing the draft, fine, but Pelé risked state-sanctioned murder if he spoke out.
“If I told you I didn’t know anything [about the disappearances and torture], I would be lying,” admits Pelé. But, he argues, he and his Santos teammates knew nothing for certain – media was tightly controlled by the government and they spent long periods playing abroad – and he could achieve more for the Brazilian people on the pitch than by trying to take on the entire Brazilian state security apparatus. “Pelé’s achievements merge with national glory, whoever wins,” explains Cardoso, the ex-president, “A dictatorship? It wins with him. A democracy? It wins in the same way.” For Pelé, who was 23 when the junta took power and who had little formal education, it was too much to grapple with. Tryhorn takes the “Old Hollywood studio star” analogy a step further: “What he knows is smiling for the cameras, signing autographs. When we have the 1960s, a decade of change, he almost can’t quite keep up with that. And when the world becomes a bit more radical, he doesn’t really know how to get on board.
“There’s a danger of always comparing Brazil to the US in the 1960s. It’s not like there was a civil rights movement in Brazil, in the 1960s. And it’s not like there were any other footballers standing up to the regime.”
‘PELÉ’S ACHIEVEMENTS MERGE WITH NATIONAL GLORY, WHOEVER WINS’
When Diego Maradona died last year, a number of obituaries highlighted his status as a Latin American champion – a staunch Argentine socialist who stood up against yanqui American imperialism and a personal friend of Castro and Chávez. But, for most of his career, Maradona lived and played in Italy or Spain. Pelé, committed to staying in his beloved Brazil and driving the national game forward, had no such option (it’s also perhaps worth noting here that, in the 1960s, Brazil’s regional leagues were as competitive as Europe’s national ones, so Pelé was hardly shirking competition). “Maradona would have would have seen the Muhammad Alis of the world,” says Nicholas, “and would have seen the Black Panther salute [at the 1968 Olympics] and would have maybe attached himself to the idea of ‘I want to be a rebel. That’s my style’. Pelé didn’t have that option.”
Pelé was totally inextricable from Brazilian football as an institution, for better or worse. Early on in Pelé, an English news reporter at the 1970 World Cup accidentally sums it up the best, declaring that “he’s worshipped to the point where he’s almost a prisoner”.
Tryhorn felt that, during their interviews, Pelé was “uncomfortable talking about anything political”. At times, he seems almost bemused by the idea that he should or could have taken action. Instead, in one of the best moments in the documentary, the first time we see Pelé really relax is at a barbecue with his old Santos teammates, now all in their seventies and eighties. Pelé is late and his teammates start cracking jokes about how “o rei”, the king, always keeps them waiting. And then he walks around the corner and the old men are suddenly young players again, the tight-knit group who travelled the world together at the top of their game, laughing and talking rubbish about the old days.
“We see Pelé as such a guy in a suit these days,” explains Tryhorn. “An establishment figure.” He and Nicholas wanted to show him as “a T-shirt, shorts and flip-flops guy”, at least momentarily. At first, Pelé took some convincing when they suggested the barbecue. “I think he finds it quite hard meeting up, all those emotions coming to the surface again.” But once he agreed, the memories started flooding back and he fell back into character with ease: 29 again and on top of the world. “Afterwards, we were told by his manager that he still talks about that meeting. Getting together has been the absolute highlight of his last year.” It’s a genuinely touching moment: o rei and his lieutenants, reliving the lofty heights of his reign one final time.
Pelé is on Netflix from 23 February.