Pelé (2021) - 7/10
Updated: Apr 25
As a football fan in my early 40s, I’m of that generation that although very aware of Pelé being the greatest footballer of all time... I never saw him play. To truly understand a player you need to see them in the flesh, a second best is TV, but TV in Pelé’s playing days didn’t have the coverage we get in the modern game, you’d miss so much and was pretty much none existent in his early career. Millions saw it all though, winning 3 World Cups in an incredible 12 year period, there was no denying who was the best. Watch any old footage and you’ll see clips of just how fast he was, strong, graceful, fearless with the ball, an absolute goal machine. It’s a bit of a shock to watch him amble into frame for the opening interview shot here on a zimmerframe. He’s here to tell his life story. A poor working family in his beloved Brazil, a lively kid who enjoyed football and looked up to his football playing father. That’s about as in depth as this gets though to be honest. It’s a bit of a whirlwind rise, landing a pro deal with Santos at 16 and then selected for the ‘58 World Cup. I don’t know if this was as normal as perhaps it is these days, but it’s dropped in so quickly here it feels meteoric... it’s obvious to everyone he was a bit special. Brazil weren’t expected to do much in 1958 having failed when they hosted in 1950. Pelé himself considered to be too young by the world press... the press were wrong of course. "Some people believe football is a matter of life and death” Shankly said (although it’s a slight misquote) “I can assure you it is much, much more important than that." The 1950 disappointment was a considered a national tragedy and lit a fire under Pelé’s Brazil. That first World Cup aged just 17 was the touch paper and cemented Pelé as the figurehead of a new Brazilian pride and a new national identity. This structures itself as much around the World Cups as Pelé’s life. I guess this period is what people most want to hear about, but there’s some lovely present day stuff with him chatting around the dinner table with old mates from Santos, joking, reminiscing and this doc would’ve benefitted for more of this. It’s not all laughs though. The injury that took him out of the ‘62 World Cup (they won anyway), followed by a military coup in ‘64 that really spoilt the party. Not for Pelé though, too far above it all for him to feel it, he’s more effected by a loveless marriage to his first wife Rose. Maybe it’s this unrest that leads to them not winning in ‘66... but don’t let any England fans hear you say that. The game was changing on the Brazilians. Tougher, more tactical, perhaps more cynical or as Pelé puts it “Ugly”. It effects him so badly, he quits international football and if that wasn’t sad enough, Brazil fall further into a dictatorship with draconian laws to suppress freedom with as much force as desired. Pelé seems to have allowed himself to float above all the shit. Denying any political affiliations or clear knowledge of the atrocious events. I’d need to read further into this, although I’ve no idea what’s out there already, but it leaves a mark against his name for me, a bad taste. Pelé is the inspirational icon, football something people turn to to take their mind off the troubles. Maybe it was a simpler time, but it seems a little convenient. He says that his childhood in a poor family grounds him, but on the evidence presented here, that claim seems a little shallow. As I’m thinking this, I’m comforted to hear some on screen agree with me. His neutrality perceived as cowardice. The archive football footage though is undeniably wonderful, getting mobbed by reporters mid-match on scoring his 1000th goal and terrifying, militaristic flag waving as the government take the reigns of the 1970 World Cup campaign. A tournament that seemed more about politics on and off the field than anything to do with kicking a ball around and the squeeze is put on Pelé to make a return. Brazilians expected to lose in ‘70, Pelé thought to be past it. Expectations dropped, the pressure off, Pelé and the whole team shine. It’s a bittersweet story one with a lot of troubling undercurrents, but as one journalist says here “When it comes to football, the heart rules the head” and this is an enjoyable, informative watch. Is he the best of all time? I’m not entirely sure, but certainly one of only a few that could make the claim. This certainly isn’t the best doc of all time, but it’s worth a watch if you like football.