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Sports and Politics Walk a Fine Line in Netflix Pelé Documentary
March 3, 2021  | By Alex Strachan  | 18 comments

Soccer's greatest legends: Diego Maradona, Lionel Messi, Neymar, and now Kylian Mbappé. Choosing a worthy candidate for the title 'Greatest Player in the History of the Game' is both spectator sport and blood sport, and it changes with the times.

Above them all, though, one name stands out. It's hard not to sit down to the fine new Netflix documentary Pelé and not be reminded just what a profound influence the man born Edson Arantes do Nascimento had on the Beautiful Game.

That's why it's a shock to see Pelé, now 80, emerge in the film with a walker as he hesitantly sits down to a face-to-face interview with filmmakers Ben Nicholas and David Tryhorn.

In many ways, Pelé is a remarkable film, despite early reviews that complain there are few layers to the man himself, that despite his skill at playing soccer (known in the rest of the world as football) in a decades-long career that saw him become the first person in history to win three World Cups, all with his native Brazil, the man himself is not that interesting a subject to pin an entire documentary on. He doesn't have the charm and charisma — "the BS personality," as one wag put it — we have come to expect of our celebrities in the social media age.

And yet.

The shy, retiring, 5 ft. 8 in. footballer born into poverty in Bauro in the Brazilian state of São Paulo would go from obscurity to superstar at age 17 in the 1958 World Cup in Sweden. Within 12 years, he was a national hero and a role model for young people all over Brazil.

Therein lies the central problem, revealed about halfway through the film. When Pelé, the national hero, won the 1970 World Cup in Mexico, he did it during one of the most turbulent times in Brazil's history. The country was in the grip of a military dictatorship, and human rights abuses were rampant.

It turns out Pelé's accomplishments on the field are merely prologue for what Pelé is really about. Halfway through the two-hour film, the tone changes, the focus shifts, and the film's real theme — the story one suspects filmmakers Tryhorn and Nicholas wanted to tell all along — emerges.

Ordinary Brazilians, weary of their national government's oppression, expected Pelé to take a stand, in much the same way Muhammad Ali took a public stand against the Vietnam War and refused to accept the draft, even at the risk of going to prison. At what point does a national sports hero owe it to himself, and the people who idolize him, to speak out about injustice where they see it?

Pelé chose to keep silent. And that's why, to this day, so many people don't hold him in the same esteem they do Ali. Pelé may have been the greatest soccer player who ever lived, but he was not The Greatest.

After winning the World Cup for his country in 1970, Pelé accepted an invitation to the presidential palace of Emílio Médici, whose liberal use of torture and press censorship marked a new low in the military's two-decade rule, even as Brazil was in the midst of an economic boom. Pelé's defenders argue in the film, including former teammates, that sport and politics are separate. Pelé himself says his father raised him to respect those in authority, that when someone important invites you to their home, as Médici did after the 1970 World Cup, you go. You behave as any decent guest would. You nod politely, smile graciously, and keep your opinions to yourself.

To Pelé's following, desperate for change, this must have seemed like a terrible, silent betrayal. The junta was using Pelé, parading him before the public as if the generals were instrumental in making him the sensational player he was, effectively taking credit for his World Cup victories.

His detractors argue that it's easy to say sports and politics are separate, but the world is different. It's impossible to watch the Olympics, for example, and not be caught up in patriotic fervor. The same is true of soccer's World Cup.

There's a telling moment, toward the end of Pelé, when Muhammad Ali himself is sitting in the stands at one of Pelé's games, looking on dispassionately, his expression inscrutable, seemingly devoid of emotion. If Ali was a fan, he's not showing it.

Pelé's silence weighs on him to this day. It becomes the moral focus of this revealing, eye-opening film. One of Pelé's then-teammates tells the filmmakers he admires Pelé as a player and as a teammate, but he still has his doubts about Pelé as a social crusader. That said, the former teammate points out that one big difference between Ali and Pelé is that Ali faced prison for his defiance, while Pelé risked torture and death. In other words, Ali knew his outspokenness would land him in a cell, most assuredly, but he never feared for his life.

That's not the kind of anecdotal detail one expects to find in a mere sports documentary. It's one more reason why Pelé is a surprisingly thoughtful and meaningful film, especially given the political climate of the present day.

Pelé starts as hagiography, but it ends as something considerably more. Even if you don't care much for soccer or the Beautiful Game, Pelé provides food for thought and is well worth two hours of your time.

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