Netflix’s Pelé documentary showcases a portrait of an ordinary man with an extraordinary skill

Screenshot courtesy of Netflix

By Shwetha Surendran
Boston University News Service

It’s 1958, and the Brazilian national football team is set to face a Welsh side on the road to the FIFA world cup finals. A few minutes into the second half, the ball is intercepted and passed to a slender 17-year-old donning the No:10 jersey. Catching it on his chest and controlling it with his right foot, he flicks it past the defender and into the net. 

Brazil one, Wales zero. 

Bounding into the air, the jubilant goal scorer runs into the net to be reunited with the ball. His team and a horde of photographers follow him in. 

It was the teenager’s first goal for the national team, but it wouldn’t be his last. It was a goal leading him to his first world cup victory, but it wasn’t going to be his last. 

If the crowds didn’t know who Edson Arantes do Nascimento was then, they were soon going to find out. When they did, they would fervently chant his name into soccer history: “Pelé! Pelé! Pelé!”

Directed by David Tryhorn and Ben Nicholas, Netflix’s newest documentary on the rise of the Brazilian soccer legend follows a similar style to the streaming giant’s hugely successful profile of Michael Jordan and his Chicago Bulls dynasty. 

Placing the 80-year-old Pelé, now assisted by his walking apparatus, as the centerpiece of its narration, the story forays into the soccer star’s glittering career set against the volatile backdrop of Brazilian politics. 

Utilizing a rich archive of old game footage, the filmmakers recreate a glorious sporting past. Glossing over most of his club victories, it narrows in on his national and global appeal — one that made him “a King” to millions of his fellow countrymen, who pinned their every hope on his sporting prowess. 

And while Pelé’s footballing artistry could have warranted the entire one-and-a-half-hour documentary, Tryhorn and Nicholas masterfully weave it into the political turmoil that rattled Brazil in the 1960s. 

Interviews from Antônio Delfim Netto, the cabinet minister under the dictatorship of General Emílio Garrastazu Médici, and former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso attempt to understand the football star’s place in Brazil’s political landscape. However, Pelé admits he has no interest in being a part of politics — not then, not now. 

Some view Pelé’s choice to stay out of Brazilian politics to be a betrayal. Others, such as his friend and journalist Juca Kfouri, understand his choice as a means of survival. 

Pelé might be Pelé, but as Kfouri says, “A dictatorship is a dictatorship.”

The documentary also sprinkles in Pelé’s more human characteristics such as friendships and marriages. 

It briefly delves into the star’s private life and his marriage to Rosemeri dos Reis Cholbi. The few minutes that Rose appears on the screen is enough to reveal the burden of being a global icon’s wife. It’s hard not to grimace as she gets moved aside as other young women kiss her husband for a photo or autograph. 

Unsurprisingly, Pelé also admits to cheating on her. Some of these affairs resulted in children. 

In another scene, he is seated amongst his old teammates, some of whom have since passed away, reminiscing about the good old days. One recalls that his duty was to protect “the King.” It’s a suggestion that Pelé quickly shoots down. 

Pelé might have been many things, but he was undoubtedly a humble team-player. While watching a replay of his final World Cup in 1970 against Italy, Pelé covers his eyes and apologizes for the tears that follow. The Gods among us men seemingly cry too. 

Throughout the documentary, Pelé is referred to as a prodigy, icon, king and legend — all terms that history will remember him by. 

And through their cameras, Tryhorn and Nicholas add one more to the list: human.

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