Netflix’s new film captures the legendary Brazilian’s genius, but its lead character remains a fascinating enigma
Casa Pelé, the small two‑room house in Três Corações where Pelé was born in 1940, is now a popular tourist attraction. As no photographs or descriptions of the original house have survived, it was rebuilt entirely from the memories of Pelé’s mother, Dona Celeste, and his uncle Jorge, with period furniture and fixings sourced from antique shops. And so what greets visitors today is really only a vague approximation of the house where one of the world’s most famous footballers spent his earliest years: a heavily curated blend of hazy memories and selective detail. As you walk in, a wireless radio plays classic songs from the early 1940s on an endless loop.
As it turns out, this is also pretty much how Pelé himself is remembered these days. It’s 50 years since he played his last game for Brazil. Only a fraction of his rich and prolific playing career has survived on video. The vast majority of us never saw him play live. And so for the most part, the genius of Pelé exists largely in the abstract: something you heard or read about rather than something you saw, a bequeathed fact rather than a lived experience, a processed product rather than an organic document.
And so naturally the most stirring and vivid passages in Pelé, the new biopic of the legendary Brazilian footballer, are of football itself: the pure speed, the elegant nutmegs, the emphatic finishes, the footwork as precise as music. The legacy of Pelé has become a fractured and contested thing over the decades, but the football itself: this, at least, is pure. And in these passages, when gliding past defenders as if operating on some higher plane of intelligence, or being hacked and crunched to pieces by cynical opposition tactics, or defining the world’s biggest games with pieces of euphoric skill, Pelé lives as he deserves to live: with the ball at his feet. And at Pelé’s feet, the ball was whatever you wanted it to be.
There is a natural cinematic arc to Pelé’s career, one you could barely have scripted more perfectly: the spectacular entrance as a 17-year-old at the 1958 World Cup in Sweden, followed by a sea of trials and crises in the 1960s, and neatly appended with the protagonist’s triumphant return at the 1970 World Cup in Mexico. This is the arc that Pelé follows to the letter: artistically speaking, the last half-century of Pelé’s life – New York Cosmos Pelé, world peace Pelé, erectile dysfunction Pelé, Mastercard Pelé – may as well never have happened. What we get is Peak Pelé, the force of light and heat and joy who ultimately just wants to make the Brazilian people happy.
And yet by the same token, this is no hagiography. Pelé’s extramarital affairs and uncomfortably close relationship with Brazil’s murderous military dictatorship are interrogated in some detail, pieced together from archive footage, interviews with teammates, politicians and journalists, and substantial access to Pelé himself. By accident or by design, Pelé does not emerge as some virtuous conquering hero, but as a flawed and credulous star: a man who could do everything on a football pitch, but away from it was often the product of forces he could neither harness nor fully understand. Perhaps the rawest and most moving footage is of Pelé himself, now 80 and in declining health: wheeling himself into the sparse interview room on a Zimmer frame, winching himself heavily into a chair, sighing deeply.
Pelé himself has never been the most reliable of narrators. Many of the stories he likes to tell about himself – like the time he supposedly stopped a civil war in Nigeria in 1969 – have been comprehensively debunked. His record-breaking goal tally is the subject of fierce dispute. At one point in the film, he tells us that he never dreamed of becoming a footballer. Later, he tells us that after Brazil lost the 1950 World Cup final to Uruguay, he consoled his distraught father by telling him he would win it for him one day. One of these is clearly bullshit. Both are included.
But then, when you have lived as eventful and celebrated a life as Pelé has, memory becomes a vague and splintered thing. Pelé didn’t simply create his own lore out of thin air, even if for the most part he happily went along with it. He’s not sitting there on Wikipedia diligently amending his own goal record. Pelé buys wholeheartedly into his own myth because over 60 years the course of his life led him inexorably in that direction. And so, ultimately, perhaps what you remember is more often what you remember remembering, or what someone else remembered, a well-cut anecdote that you have spent more than half your life polishing before a succession of simpering interviewers. Perhaps over time the fact and the legend blend into each other, to the point where it is no longer meaningful to tell them apart. This isn’t about greats and frauds, truth and lies. It’s about the pressing urge of Pelé’s generation to exalt this one man above all others in what is essentially the history of a team game.
“Pelé rose to fame at the moment of Brazil’s birth as a modern country,” the former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso says in the film. “He became the symbol of Brazilian emancipation,” says the musician Gilberto Gil. “He made Brazilians love themselves again,” says Juca Kfouri, a journalist and friend of Pelé’s. All this is told to us as if it’s simply the gospel truth, rather than scrutinised as what it is: a story, a persuasive theory in which the young Pelé is imagined as the emblem of Brazil’s booming economy and growing national confidence in the 1950s.
A similar shorthand applies to Pelé’s growing fame, which is narrated with the credulity of a biblical miracle. The teenage star who returns from the 1958 World Cup is handsome and charismatic and young and athletic and brilliant. Virtue generates fame, and with the growth of television beaming his face and feats to a mass global audience, the reverse also turns out to be true. To what extent is Pelé worthy of all this? To what extent does it place an intolerable burden on him? To what extent is his twinkly, inoffensive public persona – Brand Pelé – a means of coping with the ridiculous levels of fame and expectation invested in him while he was still basically a child?
It’s interesting to see what doesn’t make the finished cut. The women in Pelé’s life – his family, his first wife, an unspecified number of children – are barely mentioned. Money is barely mentioned: for more than a decade Pelé entrusted his financial affairs to his agent, Pepe Gordo, who invested a significant part of Pelé’s fortune in a number of failed businesses. By the late 1960s, Pelé was broke and forced to ask his club, Santos, to bail him out on unfavourable terms. This traumatic episode had a defining impact on Pelé, who in some respect has spent the rest of his life chasing down the riches he believes are his due.
Instead, the film takes a sharp, dark and gripping turn into politics. In 1964, an army coup – backed by the United States – overthrew the democratically elected government of João Goulart and established a brutal authoritarian regime, characterised by the torture and murder of political dissidents. The interviewer asks Pelé if the dictatorship changed anything for him. “No, football went on in the same way,” Pelé replies evenly, as footage of him scoring goals is intercut with newsreel of violent street protests.
Of course, he admits, he had an inkling of what was going on, even as he posed for photographs with General Médici at official functions, beaming and shaking hands in pictures he must have known would be distributed around the world as pro-regime propaganda. But even now there is no real contrition, no twinge of moral anguish, much less genuine remorse at a course of action he insists was the only realistic choice. “What were you doing during the dictatorship? Which side were you on? You get lost in these things,” he says in a tone that evokes not so much discomfort as a vague indifference.
In the age of the athlete-activist, Pelé’s immaculate neutrality comes across as both a little jarring and entirely understandable: the weariness of an octogenarian non‑combatant who is simply wired in a certain way. “You could tell me Muhammad Ali was different,” his friend Kfouri says. “Indeed he was, and I applaud him for it. Ali knew that he would be arrested for refusing the draft, but he ran no risk of being mistreated or tortured. Pelé had no assurance of that.”
Really, how else did we expect Pelé – a sportsman with no political ambition or credo – to act in the face of a frightening, omnipotent military junta? Rebel, resist, lose everything? Flash a defiant eye in those official photographs, just to show the world what he really thought? Perhaps, in measuring Pelé up to the athlete-activist ideal, we are simply guilty of doing what the world has been doing to Pelé ever since he emerged: moulding and forcing and chiselling him into our own preconceived expectations of what a hero should look and sound like.
The character of Pelé was created to fulfil multiple needs. For the Brazilian people he was the outsized superhero, a source of joy and exuberance in a sad, suppressed country. For the politicians who effectively kept him captive, preventing him from moving to Europe in the 1960s and coercing him into coming out of international retirement to play in the 1970 World Cup, he was a resource: a handy propaganda tool and icon of nationalistic devotion. For sponsors and commercial interests, he was an inexhaustible catalyst of ticket sales and product endorsements. For coaches and teammates, he was their quickest route to glory. For broadcasters and journalists, writers and film-makers, he was (and continues to be) content. For autograph and memorabilia hunters, he was the motherlode. For a generation of football fans, he would be the eternal Greatest: lifelong and irrefutable proof that their own happy memories were objectively better than those of any subsequent generation.
Of course Pelé went along for the ride. He was 17. What else was he going to do? What else did he know? As he matured into adulthood, he would discover that his life had already been built around him: a ceaseless treadmill of football and football and things around the football and more football. He would learn that he and he alone was the show (when he was injured for a while in 1962, Santos attendances dropped by 50%). And once the show moved on, he was essentially pensioned off and left to fend for himself.
Last year, Pelé’s son Edinho claimed in an interview that his father’s health struggles had left him depressed and reclusive, embarrassed to leave the house. Within days the man himself had issued an official statement rejecting the claims and insisting that he had “several upcoming events scheduled”. And in a sense, Pelé’s later years have increasingly felt like an attempt to keep breathing life into the character that once so transfixed the world, even as its physical feats recede ever further into the distance.
There’s a particularly poignant moment about halfway through the film that seems to encapsulate this eternal struggle. In November 1969, a capacity crowd gathered at the Maracanã in a state of feverish rapture, hoping to see Pelé score his 1,000th career goal against Vasco da Gama. The game was level until the 78th minute, when Pelé wriggled into the area and won a penalty. As he stepped up to take the kick, Pelé looked round to see that his teammates were not camped on the edge of the penalty area but all the way back on the halfway line, willing him on from a distance. Not for the first time, Pelé was alone with just the ball at his feet.
It’s not a great penalty. He places it to his right. Edgardo Andrada, the goalkeeper, flings himself to his left but can’t quite grasp it. The ball hits the net and in that same moment Pelé is bounding after it, scooping it up into his arms. And in that same moment he’s mobbed by a crowd of hundreds of photographers and radio reporters and jubilant fans. Strong hands try to grab the ball from him and so Pelé hoists it aloft, partly in triumph, partly because he’s just trying to keep hold of the ball. Then all of a sudden in the melee he drops it and the ball disappears into the throng, and the crowd are still going crazy, and Pelé is still frantically looking around, trying to glimpse the ball. But it’s gone. Forty-seven years later in London, the ball will sell for £81,250 at auction to a private bidder.
• Pelé is available from 23 February on Netflix.
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