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The complicated greatness of ‘Pele’

March 1, 2021
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There are many levels of greatness in the sports world. And there are many ways in which that greatness can be defined – and many ways to disagree with those definitions. For many, sports fandom is defined by such arguments.

But there are a handful of performers whose excellence is so profound, so paradigm-shifting, that they exist on a tier of their own. Icons of sport. All-timers. Legends. Players that redefine what we believe is possible.

Players like Pele.

“Pele,” the new documentary directed by Ben Nicholas and David Tryhorn, takes a look at the Brazilian soccer legend. Specifically, it’s an exploration of Pele’s four World Cups. While we get some of his early life, as well as some current perspective, the vast majority of the film concerns itself with the period from 1958-1970, a dozen years over the course of which Pele became the greatest soccer player that the world had ever seen.

Born Edson Arantes do Nascimento in Brazil in 1940, Pele’s prodigious talents pulled him out of poverty and into the world of professional soccer. Just a teenager, Pele signed on with Santos FC; even at just 16, it was clear that his was a true gift.

Next thing you know, Pele is on the national team, competing in the 1958 World Cup at just 18 years of age. In four electric matches, he scores six goals – including a hat trick in one – and Brazil wins the title. And just like that, Pele is a global superstar.

The next dozen years see Pele become not just one of the most famous athletes, but one of the most famous people in the world. His feats on the pitch continue – he puts together an elite club career, even as he helps Brazil through three more World Cups, including two (1962, 1970) where they won the whole thing.

His brilliance was unlike anything ever seen before. He brought a combination of agility, speed and awareness that simply hadn’t existed previously – at least, not to this degree. Pele was able to perform feats of athleticism that redefined the general understanding of what was possible.

“Pele” spends some time with the man himself, of course, as well as a number of his former teammates and assorted figures from that time in Pele’s life – journalists and coaches and historians. It’s telling that all of them – even now, a half century gone by – are still in awe of what they saw Pele do. Fifty years passed, and judging from their recounting, those feats are as vivid in the memory as if they’d happened yesterday.

That’s what true, transcendent greatness is. When what you’ve done is so fundamentally impressive that it is burned into the brain, there to shine brightly for years on end … that’s greatness. That’s the redefinition of possible.

Over the course of that stretch, from 1958 through to his announced retirement from international play in 1970, there was no sporting figure as universally beloved as Pele. In truth, 1958 made him the first black global superstar. And from that moment, from that explosion of attention in 1958, Pele began carefully curating and controlling his image.

And why wouldn’t he? With his good looks and instinctual savvy, he was an ideal pitchman for pretty much whatever you might want to sell. He was young and vibrant and charming and eager to please. All he had to do was avoid rocking the boat. Of course, when your country’s government is overthrown in a military coup, well … those sorts of stormy seas make it tough to keep things steady.

Pele was a good soldier when the new junta came to power. Rather than engage in any sort of political conversation, he simply moved forward, allowing the beautiful game to hold his attention. It was a bubble, one that allowed Pele the luxury of not considering the more brutal and unforgiving aspects of the new military government. It’s an interesting, albeit understandable choice – the risk of outspokenness in such an environment was not insignificant, even for someone as famous as Pele. Still, many of his contemporaries in later years expressed disappointment in the icon’s silence.

One could argue that the filmmakers let their subject off the hook here, never pressing Pele on the ramifications of his choice to stay silent. And the nature of Pele’s relationship with his country as a Black man is glossed over. Still, the notion of Pele’s play truly impacting the people of his country beyond the joy of victory is an interesting one to explore, even if said impact may have potentially been overstated.

Do I wish that “Pele” had gone a little deeper? Yes. While the primary focus on the four World Cups makes sense, a little more about Pele’s life outside and after soccer would have been interesting – other than a few vague mentions of affairs and children, we hear nothing about his (extremely complicated) personal life. That, plus a little more push on Pele’s political actions (or lack thereof), would have gone a long way.

“Pele” has its flaws, to be sure, but it is also an engaging look at one of the most important stretches in the history of international soccer. What Pele did over the course of those 12 years, winning those three championships (still the only man to do it) – it was superhuman. Had we been able to get a bit more of the merely human Pele, this documentary might have reached a greatness of its own.

[3.5 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 01 March 2021 07:48

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