Brazilian football player Pelé (full name Edson Arantes do Nascimento) has some pretty extraordinary boasts to his name. Widely regarded as one of the best players of all time, he is the only footballer to win the World Cup three times, and he scored 1283 goals in 1367 games. It’s no small wonder Netflix found him a worthy documentary subject.
‘Pelé’ is one of those examples of a film that might have been better served as a series (which a platform like Netflix could have easily commissioned). While there’s no doubt about the extraordinary talent of the sports star, one can’t help but feel there are a few omissions in the film, or at least that there was room for expansion. For example, at the start of the doc, the audience is informed that by the time Pelé was playing in his fourth World Cup, he faced threats of being kidnapped or assassinated, his celebrity status proving overwhelming. Yet this topic isn’t really returned to again.
The doc does a decent job of going through the footballer’s childhood, emphasising his poor upbringing and how much he looked up to his father, who also played football. As a kid, he showed talent from his very first training session. Soon he was being swept off to Sweden, where people at the time hadn’t even heard of Brazil, and where young people were fascinated by Pelé’s black skin.
The titular figure is described as cool and confident in his youth, which can be extended to the figure we see in his present day interviews. Significantly, Pelé put Brazil on the map as a football team (“we weren’t favourites of anything”, someone comments). It’s fascinating to hear about this Brazilian inferiority complex, whereby the nation saw themselves as inferior to everyone else, and leaned into it as a sort of self-defence. Pelé gave them hope and ignited a confidence in them – “he became a symbol of Brazil’s emancipation.”
Beloved around the world, across class, race, creed and country, recent interviews with him show him to be a humble man, and still baffled by how big everything became around him. Before he was even 19, he was considered the best footballer in the world, and the viewer gets invigorated just as the crowd does in praise of the man. His career also exploded thanks to the advent of television, meaning everyone around the world was watching him.
There is a lovely scene where he reunites with teammates, all older and wiser now, and it might have been nice to see a bit more of that. One also feels that Pelé is let off the hook for such flaws as his many extramarital affairs. There’s a hesitation to give any in-depth criticism, and there are a number of interview subjects who come on to just give a line about how great he is, and then disappear. Such moments seem odd and extraneous. We get that Pelé is amazing but at some point it just feels like they’re going on and on about how great he is.
Now when it gets to the political shifts that were occurring in Brazil at the time, and Pelé’s efforts to stay neutral in their wake, that’s quite intriguing. But another issue viewers might find, especially for sports fans, is that the balance between actual game play and interviews isn’t quite there. The latter features much more frequently. Still, ‘Pelé’ provides a fascinating account of an extraordinary and hugely significant sports star. One simply thinks that the subject may be broached again, and more effectively, in the future.
‘Pelé’ is streaming on Netflix from Tuesday, 23 February.