David Tryhorn and Ben Nicholas with Pelé

The Man and the Myth: David Tryhorn and Ben Nicholas talk ‘Pelé’

By 22 September, 2021

Will Huddleston caught up with the directors of Pelé to discuss how they approached making their documentary about Brazil’s legendary footballer.

Sounds and Colours: When I imagine Pelé, I picture a FIFA corporate wall around him. How did you approach that?

David Tryhorn: When people first think of Pelé, they have an image of him that is quite “‘establishment”. He is often the guy you will see in a suit at a World Cup draw.

But as to approaching him, he’s actually quite a humble guy and has a simple circle of people around him. You don’t have to go through various big protocols to at least make contact with the people who deal with him. So, in terms of getting the original idea across to him, that was relatively straightforward.

We found out who managed him, sent our proposal and we sort of took it from there. Then Ben and I had a pre-production meeting with Pelé at his house outside Santos, and we took him through the idea and he liked it.

S&C: Some moments in the film feel awkward as you ask him about things which I didn’t think he would be keen to discuss. Was there any kind of tension or difficulty getting to those points?

DT: The thing is Pelé’s kind of heard it all before, he’s been asked questions on everything. These days he gets asked who he thinks is the greatest player of all time. He’ll get into these sorts of slanging matches about it, or feel like he needs to protect his legacy. We didn’t have any interest in doing that. The challenge for us was to take a guy who’s done thousands of interviews, and to get beyond the kind of standard stock answer he’s learnt to give over the years. Also to get away from that establishment image which may not bear resemblance to reality.

S&C:: You mentioned that he was very protective of his legacy. That was the main difficulty that I imagine that would be raised…

Ben Nicholas: Yeah, over the years, he’s probably got used to that feeling about his legacy. The whole world – us included in this country – has quite a superficial knowledge of his story. We’ve all bought into this life that you could summarise in a two-minute YouTube clip. But we don’t know much beyond that. So another of the tasks was trying to explain how someone gets to this point. How does one live a life that can create that fame, that history, and explain that it was about having a profound effect on a country? It was trying to explain the myth, but also kind of humanise the myth as well.

S&C: Regarding his importance for Brazil, I was most interested in his relationship with the military dictatorship. You could make a comparison with the 1978 World Cup in Argentina, which became a propaganda coup for the Argentine government at the time. Your film ends at the 1970 World Cup: was there ever a sense that it was a victory tainted by the Médici government?

After the final, at the rally in Brasília, we see Médici and Pelé shaking hands and slapping each other on the back. Was there ever a sense that the exposure of this relationship would damage the legacy in any way?

DT: To me, the film humanises Pelé more than anything. José Trajano, a journalist, says that he went out looking to support the team playing against Brazil but then you can’t help but support Brazil once it gets going. That’s the general feeling in Brazil: 1970 is never associated with the dictatorship of Médici. It’s the final quote in the film. It’s associated with Pelé, and Jairzinho, Tostão, Rivelino, etc. So, it doesn’t damage his legacy, but quite the opposite.

One of the reasons for finishing with ‘70 is that if you really boil down Pelé’s story, in ‘58 he’s a 17-year-old, ‘62 Brazil win, but he’s not that instrumental, then ‘66 they obviously crash out, and this is why the World Cups form the spine of the story. And without ‘70, Pelé doesn’t become immortal, really, he doesn’t become Pelé.

When you look at it, pre ‘58 Brazil is a major footballing nation because they were in the final in ‘50, but they weren’t the country of football as we see them today. Post ‘70, that is the first thing people associate with Brazil, and Pelé is the guy who spans that 12-year period. So that’s the important thing with his legacy. To me, ‘70 is crucial, not only to Pelé’s legacy, but also to Brazil’s identity, it’s the kind of rubber stamp that both Pelé and the country need.

S&C: Going back to the 1970 World Cup. I think part of the reason the footage is so amazing is because it was the first World Cup televised in colour…

BN: Not in Brazil. From what I understand Médici was one of the few people who watched it in colour because in Brazil it was black and white unless you were a real VIP.

S&C: That marks an enormous change in football as a global sport. Now you’re getting these wonderful images of brightly coloured Brazil kits, and stars you wouldn’t have been able to see before are now in your living room. Pelé is the best of them. He is the first kind of proper global televisual football star.

BN: The colour is definitely crucial to that as well. The reason the Pelé myth has perpetuated longer than any other player in any other sport is largely because perhaps, as Dave says, if you take ‘70 away from his legacy, it would have diminished far quicker. It allowed him to become a modern star by seeing him in colour and seeing him look so beautiful in that kit, that’s a huge part of the myth. For us as filmmakers, seeing that footage, we were pretty quick to decide that that was going to be our climax. Not only because, as Dave says, that’s where they cement their legacy, it’s where he kind of becomes immortal, but it also just looks so good. So, in terms of the film and the story, you felt that that was your big set piece to end with.

DT: And it’s also Pelé’s ability to turn up at those moments. We often talk about modern players producing in the big games. Pelé has this knack – almost unlike any other player ever – of always showing up at the very biggest moments in his career. Whether it was the World Club Cup final against Benfica in ‘62, whether it was in the ‘58 final, whether it was in the ‘70 final. It’s not only turning up and bossing those games, it’s also, that header, the little chip and volley in ’58: these are iconic moments on the biggest stage of them all. Few players are able to do that or have ever been able to do that.

BN: He’s got an unmatched sense of occasion. As Dave says, not only to play well, but also to create moments that you can grab onto and recognise instantly 60 years later.

S&C: There’s that scene of him scoring his thousandth goal and the huge media scrum around him: presumably as his fame grew, the occasion grew. He was the star, but there was a whole kind of stage around him that built up over the years.

BN: Exactly, and that he had helped to create as well. That’s one of the cool things in the film, that in ‘58 you get the sense that he’s turning up to the final as if he was playing a game in the park with his mates. He is untouched by the past, untouched by the Mongrel Complex, or by any kind of inferiority complex that Brazil may have had. But by ‘70, you feel like he knows he has responsibility for the way a whole country is feeling. And for him, to deliver and play well and do those things on that stage, I think that’s the difference between a genius and the rest of us.

S&C: It was also amazing to see him n the behind-the-scenes footage in Sweden (for the 1958 World Cup). He’s just playing darts in the park with his mates and he looks so unfazed. I say his mates; I mean the Brazilian national team…

BN: Yeah, it’s very much a school trip.

S&C: In those clips (from Sweden 1958), you stress the reaction of the Swedish people to seeing this black star. This raises the importance of him as a black footballer and a black celebrity. Lilian Thuram, the former French player, made some comments that echo Paolo César Lima in the film when he talks about Pelé being ‘a genuflecting black man’. Do you think that’s a fair comment?

BN: We felt that it was possibly slightly unfair, but only in the sense that Pelé rises to fame in the 1950s and he just suits that decade. He’s someone that really understands what the public want from their famous people in the ‘50s, and it’s all stuff that he’s good at: being fantastic at something, looking fantastic, the great smile. He suits that era of star perfectly, and because he becomes so famous, he creates this character. By the time you get to the 1960s the world is changing, and you’ve got people like Muhammad Ali emerging: the public may be starting to expect different things from their stars. Pele is caught off guard by that and reacts by hardening his position as ‘Mr. Brazil’. It’s something which, in fairness to him, he took very seriously and he really wanted to represent Brazil throughout his career. My belief is that he would have avoided anything controversial which could put at risk this idea that he’s the symbol of the whole country. So, his idea would be to behave well and smile. Criticism of that is probably fair, but at the same time, that is his character. Even if he were becoming famous today he’d be more of a Roger Federer than a LeBron James. He’s not an activist. His background means that to become the symbol of a country would have been such an honour, and his idea has always been to maintain that status.

DT: It wouldn’t make sense for him to pivot to become a radical, really. Also, if you think about his background, he comes from a very small town, Bauru, in the São Paolo countryside, with a very Catholic family. So, growing up like that in the ‘40s and ‘50s, to become the establishment is the aim of the game, really. If you do become part of that wider establishment, which in Brazil was and still is very white, you’ve achieved success.

BN: You’ve broken through the glass ceiling.

DT: The other thing I always remember with Pelé is that he became famous at such a young age. He was a big star in Brazil from the age of about 15, 16, and worldwide from 17. We don’t want to speak for him of course, but when he says that he never experienced racism, it’s probably true. From the age of 17 he was always lauded as this king. He very much sees himself as a representative of all colours, but at the same time, he never denies that he’s black. He’s very proud of who he is and where he’s come from.

The other thing to mention about Brazil is that everyone will always want to make the comparison with the US. Brazil and the United States are two very different countries with two very different race movements. There wasn’t the same movement in Brazil. There were smaller civil rights movements. To get into racism in Brazil is a whole different story, but he wouldn’t have had the same kind of movement going on in the background, or examples to follow.

BN: It also speaks to the nature of fame, how that has changed. Some of my favourite bits in the film are when, as he’s rising to prominence, people are just charging onto the pitch, pulling him left and right, touching him in a way that would just be unthinkable today. The level of scrutiny he was under, especially from such a young age, is something I wouldn’t handle even in my 40s. To get used to that at 17 he creates a persona to be able to deal with it for better or worse. It’s very hard for any of us to put ourselves in his shoes and work out what would have been the best way to handle those things.

S&C: The cynical reading, which is the one shared by Lillian Thuram, would be that,if you are ‘Mr. Brazil’, that means that you’re a lot more commercially viable. It would be a kind of proto-version of the ‘Republicans buy sneakers, too’ line. That is one reading of the situation. Do you think that’s valid?

BN: It’s definitely valid but I think that just comes down to different personalities. And as I said, it’s very hard for us to put ourselves in his shoes at that moment. The Jordan comparison is definitely valid as well, but certain people can react to certain things in different ways, and I think the way he handled it was what he felt at that moment was the best way.

DT: Also, there weren’t any other players doing it either. You can say, Pelé is the most famous and has the most responsibility, but it’s not like Garrincha was doing it in the ‘50s and ‘60s.

S&C: No of course not, and the examples of football activism in Brazil would obviously come in the next decade afterwards.

DT: Yeah, exactly, with people like Socrates. Paolo César Lima was a little bit more, but then again, it’s an age thing. He’s born about 10 years later than Pelé, so grows up in a different era, and he grows up in the Rio favelas. So, you’re growing up in different surroundings, you’re not from a conservative small town. It is all those influences that are perhaps more interesting.

S&C: As to becoming ‘Mr. Brazil’, what age was he when he decided to take that on, when did he consciously become aware that he was trying to embody this enormous nation?

BN: I think almost instantly. We try and say that in the film about ‘58, and that’s why it’s a film about personal identity and national identity, I think, he arrives in ‘58 and the character is born, he’s a young Superman.

DT: There’s an article written only four months before the ‘58 World Cup, and he’s already referred to as the King. So that’s happening before the World Cup. So, from a very early age, he is earmarked as a great. Obviously he’s this very humble guy who’s always saying he never thought he was better than anyone else His Dad was very ruthless and made sure he kept his feet on his ground, and Pele does spectacularly throughout his career. He never gets carried away by all those potential temptations or vices that befall most great sportsmen. But he plays in a very dismissive way, it’s a little like watching men against boys a lot of the time, he has this presence on a pitch and he’s so much more athletic than everyone else. He plays in a quite imperious way right from a young age. There’s a little bit just before that final goal in the 1958 final where, before he does that header, there’s a little backheel that is just so nonchalant…

BN: It’s the ability to look quite modern. And you think wow, he looks like a great player today and then you watch ten seconds on and the other guys are kind of falling over the ball. And you just think he was a spaceman at that point. He arrived almost fully formed.

S&C: His movement, the fluidity, his touch seems so modern compared to those around him.

BN: You have to take the ball and pitches and boots and all those things that everyone always mentions into account. But still, you watch it as you would watch the great players today.

S&C: I also want to mention the comparison with Maradona. Both of them handle the weight of fame in completely different ways. The Maradona film (directed by Asif Kapadia), is very much about the fact that when you have so much fame and pressure on you, you kind of crumble. But it never seems to affect Pelé. Or was that a bit of an act?

BN: That’s partly what we’ve been saying about creating this persona, and it is pretty unbelievable that he remained untouched by those things and managed to not fall into that trap. I don’t know if that’s his family background or if that’s coming from having a strong father figure. It may be partly an era thing, but he’s able to escape all the pitfalls that besiege most of those characters. He’s criticised for being bland, but in my opinion he just manages to create this kind of alter ego. So when he steps out the door, he’s Pelé, and that’s so important to him that he protects it at all costs.

WH: There is that story which might be apocryphal of Pelé watching the 1950 World Cup final as a 10-year-old and saying ‘I’m going to win it for you, Dad’. That kind of thing, which if it wasn’t real, would be the perfect cheesy line that you could make up for a film. The interest I have here is how conscious he was of it being about more than football. Because you do a very good job of explaining the wider societal impact that Brazil’s football success has. Was he aware of this at the time, or was he purely thinking about what he was going to do on the pitch?

BN: I don’t think he’s aware of the profound nature of change that is coming. As we said before, the difference in Brazil pre- and post-’58 is quite marked, and it’s the start of this whole rollercoaster ride up, up and then down again. And I think part of the sweetness of him early on is that he doesn’t quite realise what he’s done and is untouched by the past and just kind of says, ‘give me the ball, I’m going to take care of this from now on.’ And I think it’s only after that he realises quite what he’s done.

DT:I liken him to an old bluesman now; we’re coming into an age now where we all start to cherish Pelé a little bit more. He really is the last man standing of a previous generation. One of our big motivations in making this film was that of that 1958 starting 11 only 2 are still alive, Pelé and Zagalo, of the 1962 starting 11 for the final only two are still alive, Amarildo and Zagalo. This is sadly a generation coming to an end, and it was very important for us that it was given the cinematic treatment it deserved. It was almost the last will and testament of these people.

S&C: As I mentioned at the start, my first interaction with Pelé was as this FIFA corporate actor. Unfortunately, I do think that’s how a lot of the generation after me will interact with him. But that was the real beauty of watching this film, is that you can see the pure strength of how good he was.

BN: That was one of the motivators for us. We felt that his story lacked a definitive cultural reference point because of the era he played in. Together with the fact that that’ll he’ll fade into history, along with the people that were with him. So hopefully in 10, 20, 30 years’ time, when his name is remembered, the film will be there for people to watch and understand the impact he had.

Pelé is currently available to watch on Netflix Read our review

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