Think you know everything about Edson Arantes do Nascimento?
What do you mean “who”?!
‘The King of Brazil’, a three-time winner of the World Cup, whom forced Gordon Banks into that great save, voted World Footballer of the Century in 1999,… ah, you’re with me now…
Pele, a new documentary focusing on the first 30 years of his extraordinary life, shines a light on not only his becoming a global icon but how his rise went hand-in-hand with the development of Brazil on the world stage.
The famous footballer came from humble beginnings (poor but hard-working parents, father adept with a football, adding to the family coffers via shining shoes) but the filmmakers don’t spend too much time on Pele’s childhood. Instead, he joins Santos FC aged 16 and leaves the club 18 years later with 504 goals in 496 appearances and many medals.
By 18 he had already won his first World Cup, scoring in the quarter-, semi- and final of the 1958 tournament. Many agree this moment put both Pele and Brazil on the map – he instantly became an inspirational figure to young black people; Santos then began playing friendlies and tournaments all over the world and Brazil itself ramped up their industries and production as more eyes turned to it.
While Pele prospered hugely both on- and off-the-field we are shown he wasn’t perfect; a young man with the world at his feet, following marriage in 1966, Pele freely admits to repeated affairs. Brazil itself was also subject to a military coup that paved the way for a brutal dictatorship in the late Sixties, with Pele remaining ‘politically neutral’ which drew criticism from some quarters.
The story climaxes with World Cup 1970 and Pele in two minds whether to play or not – he didn’t see eye-to-eye with manager Saldanha (whom, rather bizarrely, shot himself in the foot trying to besmirch his star player’s name publicly), plus there was political pressure for him to play and win it ‘for his country’ (one commentator reflects: “Brazil wins if Pele wins, no matter the political landscape.”) Even if you know the outcome of this story it is still dramatically weighted enough to captivate.
Now aged 80, and despite using wheelchairs and walkers to get around, Pele still cuts a fine figure full of vim and frivolity. As one contributor put it: “Every girl wanted him as their boyfriend, every guy wanted him as their brother, every parent wanted him as a son, and everyone wanted Pele as a neighbour. He was totally captivating.”
Written by Stoke & Dagger contributor James Barrett-Sterling (Twitter: @jimothyshondell). Pele is available now on Netflix.