There can’t be many famous people still living whose life story, in the eyes of the documentary-makers chronicling it, effectively concludes more than half a century ago.
Yet that is so of the man born Edson Arantes do Nascimento in October 1940.
At the end of a new Netflix film called, simply, Pele, there is a fleeting reference to his time with New York Cosmos in the mid-1970s, but otherwise the stirring narrative begins and ends in Mexico City, in 1970, when Brazil won the World Cup for the third time.
A Netflix film on Brazil’s legendary footballer Pele has been produced by Pitch Productions
The memory of the final, and that glorious 4-1 victory over Italy, still moves 80-year-old Pele to almost uncontrollable tears, mostly of happiness, but also because he remembers the game as a form of powerful personal redemption. His teammate Rivellino recalls Pele in the changing-room after the game, three times crying ‘I’m not dead!’
‘It still gives me goosebumps,’ Rivellino says.
From Pitch Productions, the team that has made acclaimed documentaries about Kenny Dalglish, Andy Murray and Dan Carter, Pele is the first biographical film that the great man has authorised himself. He has had well-documented health problems, and appears in the film in a wheelchair, but in a candid interview – accompanied by wonderful archive material – his memory seems as sharp as ever.
The film explores the former striker’s role in Brazil’s 1970 World Cup win over Italy in Mexico
Not that he applies it much to his personal life. He admits being far too young to embark on the first of his three marriages, in 1966, and a throwaway line – ‘I’ve had a few affairs, some of which resulted in children’ – implies a can of worms he doesn’t much want to open.
But this is not a film like Asif Kapadia’s brilliant Diego Maradona (2019). Pele has never been assailed by those kinds of demons. On the other hand, nor is it just a film about football. Rather, it explains the inextricable connection between Pele and Brazil’s national identity.
Brazil’s defeat by its tiny neighbour Uruguay in the 1950 World Cup final left the nation traumatised. It was considered the perfect manifestation of Brazilians’ ‘mongrel complex’ – the collective tendency to talk themselves and their country down while praising the greatness of others.
Listening to that game on the radio, nine-year-old Pele, a humble shoeshine boy but already a football prodigy, promised his father that one day he would help Brazil win the World Cup. Just eight years later in Stockholm he did exactly that. It was the first time he had left Brazil, and he was as foreign to Sweden as it was to him. He recalls children touching his face to see if the pigment would rub off.
He scored twice in the 1958 final, which finished Brazil 5 Sweden 2 and is another game that still has the power to move him to tears. It is also another game that transcended football. In Brazil, historians credit Pele, and Pele alone, with ending, once and for all, the debilitating mongrel complex. He became the ultimate symbol of Brazil’s ‘emancipation’.
Pele was heartbroken when Brazil were knocked out of the 1966 World Cup held in England and vowed to never play in the tournament again, before making a U-turn four years later
There were more traumas to come, both for the country – in the shape of 1964’s military coup and the subsequent right-wing dictatorship – and for Pele himself. He had been kicked out of the tournament by the time Brazil won the 1962 World Cup.
In England in 1966, he was targeted even more egregiously, and he wasn’t the only one. According to the team doctor, Hilton Gosling, more players were injured in eight days than in the previous eight years. Fully expected back home to win the Jules Rimet trophy for a third successive time, Brazil went out in the preliminary stages. Again, a nation mourned, and for Pele, ‘it was the saddest moment of my life’. He vowed that he would never play in the World Cup again.
Happily, he changed his mind, and at 29, lit up the 1970 tournament, confounding all those who had declared him past his best, hence the emotional outburst that Rivellino remembers so well.
Pele and his Brazlian team-mates celebrate with World Cup after winning tournament in 1970
In part because of the advent of colour television, Mexico ’70 yielded what for many of us are the most enduringly vivid images of Pele: the picture of him embracing Bobby Moore after the 1-0 defeat of England, his perfectly-weighted pass into the path of Carlos Alberto in the final, and of course, his joy afterwards, clasping the trophy.
It is an irony of that tournament and Pele’s entire glittering career, however, that the passages of action so often used to illustrate his genius feature him failing to score: the Gordon Banks save, the shot from the centre circle against Czechoslovakia, dummying the Uruguayan goalkeeper in the semi-final and then narrowly slipping it wide.
But this fascinating film reminds us that he actually hit the target an outlandish 1,283 times in 1,367 games. It might also make you reappraise the stature of a man who in recent years seems to have slipped down the list, behind Messi, Ronaldo, and Maradona, when people consider the irresistible question: who was the greatest player of all time?
Pele is available on Netflix from next Tuesday