REVIEW: New Netflix sports doc Pelé lovingly examines a footballing legend and the world that created him
The year is 1970. The FIFA World Cup, now in its ninth outing, is set for thrilling finale in Mexico. Brazil, battered by a decade of rule by military dictatorship, have made the final again. And at the forefront of it all is Pelé, the 29-year-old Brazilian talisman, who is supposedly so important to Brazilian morale he is undroppable. The rest, they say, is history.
The new Netflix documentary on one of football’s brightest stars, Pelé, has it all. It contains intimate conversation with the man himself, examining his humble upbringing, goal-laden professional career and his mixed track record on the international stage. It examines the setting in which Pelé was to become a star, one where Brazil, having failed to win the World Cup that they themselves hosted in 1950, was not seen as the footballing great that it is today. It explores the international Pelémania that ensued after Pelé’s World Cup-winning 1958 performance. Perhaps most importantly, Pelé also paints a portrait of modern political history: Pelé’s career began in economic prosperity and continued through some of Brazil’s darkest hours. For a nation struggling against the horrifying actions of its own government, football was an escape – and their hero Pelé a source of national confidence and pride.
For both sports and non-sports fans alike, Pelé is a fascinating portrait of both a footballing star and the environment that created his legendary status. The story of Pelé is also the story of the rise of Brazil as a footballing nation, who to this day are rarely considered an outsider for World Cup success. It is also a story of politics. When Brazil needed a hero, Pelé was that hero. It wasn’t always entirely Pelé’s decision: the man himself admits that the political pressure for him to play in the 1970 World Cup, amidst declining support for the Brazilian government, was not insignificant.
Most of us know Pelé’s story. Born to a modest family, he competed in the 1958 World Cup as a teenager, where his complete lack of fear and sensational skills made him the talk of the world. His star only shined brighter the following years, collecting records as his club Santos FC established themselves as one of the best teams in the world. Pelé’s next two World Cups were less fruitful after he became injured early in both tournaments. His star on the wane, and not helped by rumours about his deteriorating physical condition, Pelé competed in his final World Cup in 1970 – becoming the only man to have ever won three World Cups.
Pelé is clearly a labour of love from filmmakers David Tryhorn and Ben Nicholas, as captivating as its subject himself. The music, composed by Antônio Pinto, with Gabriel Ferreira and Felipe Kim, deserves a lot of credit here, beautifully encapsulating Brazil’s mood throughout the piece. It is a documentary that paints Pelé mostly as the hero he is remembered to be, skirting past discussion of his personal life and marital affairs, and not really taking sides as to whether Pelé was right or wrong to claim political neutrality in a heavily divided 1960s Brazil. Nor is there too much discussion of his advertising career, or his life after football. Instead, Pelé starts where it ends – the 1970 World Cup – exploring the expectations laid on the shoulders of a 29-year-old Brazilian as all those years of footballing magnificence reach an almighty crescendo.