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Home   /   Documentary Review: Pele (Netflix)

This Netflix documentary examines the pioneering career of football’s first global superstar. The documentary codirected by David Tryhorn and Ben Nicholas manages to strike a nice balance of Pele’s on the field exploits- leading his nation to three world cups most notably and a more sobering insight into Brazil’s political and social issues of the 1960’s and early 70’s.

Tryhorn and his codirector Ben Nicholas’ film follows Pele from his early childhood in Sao Paulo all the way through to the infamous FIFA World Cup final of 1970 against Italy in a game which saw Brazil score four, cementing the side’s legacy as arguably the best, and most iconic international football team ever assembled. Pele opened the scoring on the day, perhaps fittingly as this documentary depicts Pele as a national symbol of Brazil leading a burgeoning country into a new era. Brazil first burst onto the scene as a footballing behemoth by lifting their first- and certainly not their last, world cup in 1958. The South American giants overcame Sweden in a compelling final in doing so catapulting a fresh-faced 17-year-old Pele onto the global stage. Pele became the youngest goal scorer ever in a world cup final, a feat which still stands today over 60 years on. Fast forward 12 years, Pele was amongst the goals again in a World Cup final in a totally different phase of his career with a totally different supporting cast, both victories glorious reminders of Brazil’s first golden age of football. This documentary places a keen focus on Pele’s four world cup campaigns spanning from 1958 to 1970, surveying everything that happened in-between in both his personal and professional life giving this film a nice chronological flow.

Before delving into his glistening footballing career, it’s important to know the origins of Pele’s upbringing; which the documentary does to great effect. By offering this insight through interviews with both Pele himself and close friends and family, it offers a more engaging and personal feel. Before he went onto be globally recognized as Pele, Edson Arantes do Nasimento polished shoes in order to aid his family financially after his father was put out of work. The documentary places a firm emphasis on this as it ends how it started- with Pele being handed his old shoe polishing kit on set signifying the journey he went through on the way to stardom. Pele explains “We came from nothing and we had very little,” in the film.

The use of archived footage from the 1950’s and 60’s gives this documentary a real authentic feel, offering substance and insight into the culture and contemporary issues of the time. You get a real sense for Pele’s global fame through a plethora of footage from the time varying from him signing autographs for masses of adoring fans or grinning for cameras left, right and centre. Due to the advent of television of football around the time where Pele’s stock was skyrocketing, this documentary makes it clear to see how Pele fast became one of the most recognisable faces on the planet.

Another positive of this documentary is it’s rawness and authenticity. Having Pele himself as the most prominent and important on-screen story teller offers a level of appreciation and comprehension for the viewer you might not be able to get through other means. The documentary does a good job in coaxing out details of Pele’s childhood and early upbringing and personal relations including involvement with politics and his love life, resulting in a well balanced and frank assessment of Pele’s life and career.

With all the highs of Pele’s footballing career, the documentary does well in alluding to some of the lows. After back to back triumphs in the 1958 and 1962 world cups- albeit playing a bit part role in the latter due to injury, Pele and Brazil failed to live up to expectations in the 1966 edition, succumbing to England at the quarter-final stage. This led to doubts over Pele’s role in the national team going into the following world cup campaign in 1970. Pele mentions that the 1970 world cup was a “legacy defining” one for him having initially planned to make 66 his last campaign. There were doubts over the superstar’s form heading into Mexico ’70 with manager of the time Joao Saldanha intended on not selecting him in the squad. Given Pele’s stature, the Brazilian Football Federation intervened and soon dismissed Saldanha, replacing him with Mario Zagallo just prior to the world cup and the rest as they say is history.

Overall, the choice and variety of interviewees, the footage used and the structure of this documentary gives a detailed and compelling account of Pele’s professional and personal life, making this particular film well worth the watch.

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