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‘Pelé’ Looks at the Life of Brazil’s Legendary Footballer Both On and Off the Field

By | 05 July, 2021

The most striking moment of Pelé (David Tryhorn, Ben Nicholas, 2021) is barely in the frame: in the aftermath of the 1970 World Cup Final, as the camera zooms out to capture a mounting pitch invasion, the Italian centre-back Roberto Rosato scampers around the field bumping into several Brazilians until he finds the one man with the number 10 on his back. To lose a World Cup final is the most devastating feeling in sport, but all Rosato can think about is grabbing the shirt off the man who has just consigned him to the abyss.

The scene conveys Pelé’s stratospheric status, an icon sacred even to those who had to face him. It is also a neat summary of the mission of this fascinating, surprisingly challenging film: directors Ben Nicholas and David Tryhorn engage with Pelé’s story from the flanks, looking beyond the pitch to explore the darker side of Brazilian football in this period, the social importance of the sport, and the responsibilities of glory.

First, though, there is some excessively flattering prep work to be done. In a cliché-ridden early section, we follow the young Edson Arantes do Nascimento from ragged shoe-shine boy to the riches of global football stardom. We are assured of his humility and patriotism all the while, as, through hard work, self-belief and faith, Pelé becomes an international icon and – perhaps – the greatest footballer of all time. This is a common formula for sporting biopics, and at times its simplicity overawes footballing history. Too often, Pelé is presented as a one-man team when the truth is, he was surrounded by brilliance throughout his career. At Santos he was part of the Santásticos which dominated the world in the 1960s, and the national team had enough depth to win the 1962 World Cup even after he was injured in the second game. Undeniably, however, Pelé was a phenom, and wonderfully remastered archive footage shows him in glorious motion, floating between his earthbound opponents like a being from another dimension. In one particularly marvellous sequence, an English commentator plummily remarks that “he’s mastered the grammar of the game”.

Pelé’s on-field brilliance cannot be ignored, but where this film really excels is in understanding that any attempt to describe Brazilian football or the nation’s greatest sporting icon cannot be limited to sporting spectacle. Instead, the film constructs a social history of Brazil around the rise of Pelé and the success of the national team. This begins in 1950 with the legendary Maracanazo, the 1950 World Cup final in Rio which Brazil lost to the unfancied Uruguay. In stunning historical footage, ghostly-looking fans leave the stadium like characters in a Beckett play after a match which the playwright Nelson Rodrigues described as “our Hiroshima”. Eight years after this historical low, Pelé makes “Brazilians love themselves again” by spearheading victory at the 1958 World Cup in Sweden. From here, in the words of former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Brazil was reborn “as a modern country”, and a roster of talking heads link Brazil’s economic and social progress in the 1950s and early 1960s to the Selecão’s international success.

Soon, however, the gleeful mood judders to a halt when attention turns to the military dictatorship which seized power in 1964. There is a challenging undertone to these sections, which weave (admittedly wonderful) behind-the-scenes shots of Pelé’s cossetted life touring the globe with Santos and Brazil with footage of bodies being dragged away back home. Pelé assures us that the dictatorship changed nothing for him, but the same cannot be said for his countrymen. When he is asked directly about political violence, he pleads ignorance, and when he is asked about his relationship with the military junta, he claims he tried to avoid taking sides. Both responses are unconvincing. In an archive interview, Pelé tells us he has “no desire to participate in politics”, but, given his place in Brazilian society, he had little choice in the matter.

Football has often been instrumentalised by Latin American strongmen – from Videla to Stroessner – and this was no different in Brazil. Indeed, the military junta provided staff and facilities to the squad in the hope that their success would validate their increasingly barbarous regime. Accordingly, images of Pelé on fascistic propaganda posters, meeting General Médici after scoring his 1000th career goal and embracing the dictator a year later at official celebrations for the 1970 World Cup victory underline that avoiding politics was never really an option.

Pelé’s polished neutrality has not aged well, especially given the modern valence of athlete activism, from Marcus Rashford forcing Boris Johnson’s government into a U-turn on free school meals to the Black Lives Matter protests which NFL players have engaged in since 2016. The point is made in the film by Paolo Cézar Lima, who alleges Pelé played the role of a “submissive black man who accepts everything and doesn’t answer back, question or judge”.

Keeping one’s mouth shut was not only safer, but economically sound, and the film charts Pelé’s transformation into a “human advertising billboard” on his way to becoming “football’s first millionaire” – an adorably trite phrase given modern pay packets. Throughout the film, we are reminded that Pelé “loved being an idol”, and we are left to wonder if some responsibility comes with deification. An example of the kind of defiance Pelé failed to provide comes from the coach João Saldanha, a committed communist whose outspoken critiques of Médici’s interference in the national team saw him ousted from his post. It is not a flattering comparison.

It is interesting for a sporting biopic to tackle its subject in this way, and Tryhorn and Nicholas ask some questions which are typically drowned out in the waves of idolatry around Pelé. The film underlines that his life was a relentless drive towards footballing superiority, so it is little surprise that political or social missions were lost by the wayside. His genius was in this single-minded obsession – perhaps we could call it selfishness –, but it is legitimate to wonder if the responsibilities of a figure of such scale should end beyond the white lines.

Pelé is currently available to watch on Netflix


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