It’s not easy watching Pelé shuffling into shot for an interview, needing the aid of a walker before almost shoving it away with disdain.
The disdain, however, is counterpointed by the Brazilian football great freely drumming away on a shoeshine box, or laughing with teammates over some food.
These are some of the scenes from a new Pelé documentary on Netflix.
Co-director David Tryhorn tells CNN Sport though Pelé has “done tens of thousands of interviews his entire life,” once the filmmakers explained what they wanted to do, the 80-year-old was “very focused on his own legacy at this stage in life.”
“You’re often dealing with sort of memories of memories,” adds Tryhorn as he reflects on the issues which can arise when attempting to extract anecdotes out of a man now in his ninth decade of life.
“Our challenge was to try and get behind those stock answers and try and get him to dig a little deeper in remembering things that often were happening 50, 60 or 70 years ago.”
The film charts the rise of the legendary Brazilian forward, culminating in arguably the crowning glory of the career of “O Rei’ (“The King”): Carrying his country, both on and off the pitch, to a third World Cup triumph in Mexico 1970.
As a 17-year-old he’d won the World Cup in Sweden in 1958 – scoring six times, all in the knockout rounds, including twice in the final to defeat the hosts 5-2 – and then winning the tournament again four years later in Chile, though injuries prematurely ended his involvement.
The parallels with the recent ESPN series on another sportsman many would put on the Mount Rushmore of athletes – Michael Jordan’s “The Last Dance” – are all too evident: A global star reflecting on former glories on the big stage.
But as Jordan often dealt with internal politics within the Chicago Bulls, realpolitik permeates the heart of “Pelé,” with Brazil under a military dictatorship by the time the 1970 World Cup takes place.
Although the filmmakers could have focused on football, Tryhorn was determined “that an iconic figure of Pelé’s stature deserved a definitive documentary.”
And as the film’s other director Ben Nicholas notes, by being called “The King” at 17, thus becoming the symbol of a new country, and a catalyst for the golden years, “to cope with that, I think he creates this Pelé character, someone who almost kind of forgoes his own identity to become Brazil essentially.”
The first part of the documentary illustrates Pelé’s meteoric emergence to become a teenage World Cup winner – juxtaposed against the devastating defeat Brazil suffered on home soil to Uruguay at the climax of the 1950 tournament – giving way to the Brazilian military taking charge in 1964 and showing interest in football as a tactical and political strategy.
Pelé in Profile
From firsthand experience of being around him, Nicholas holds the opinion that the criticism which has come Pelé’s way of taking an apolitical stance at a difficult period for his country has not impacted him, with the icon remaining comfortable in his choices, or arguably non-choices.
“You’re seeing people who are ready to challenge the establishment come to power,” says Nicholas. “Pelé is very much not that.
“He’s someone that as a kid came from a background where to be the establishment would have been an amazing thing. He’s someone who doesn’t really want to be seen as rebellious or divisive.
“So, I think he actually is able to be quite honest because I think he’s always stuck to the program. ‘I’m ‘The King.’ I’m a guy who brings joy through what I do on the pitch.
“I’m a guy who takes a lot of pride in representing Brazil back at home and all around the world. And that’s what I’m good at. And that’s what I’m going to stick with.’ I don’t think he’s lying about that. I think he did what he thought was best for him. And for Brazil.”
Though that 1970 victory was seemingly the stuff of a Hollywood scriptwriter’s dreams, the nightmare-ish reality was that after being cynically fouled during the 1962 tournament, and to a more damaging extent in 1966, even if Pelé was not done with football, he was seemingly content to let the tournament continue without him –“I’m not lucky in World Cups” – as he rather quaintly puts it.
For a military dictatorship who prioritized Mexico 1970 as a “government issue,” this presented a problem.
The solution, in large part, was wearing the iconic yellow shirt with the number 10 on the back.
As Nicholas recalls, “there’s a question in the air of, ‘can Pelé get it back? Can he remember who he used to be? Can he remember what he used to represent? How does he want to be remembered?’ And I guess, what kind of country does Brazil want to be? And everyone kind of has a choice as we get to Mexico in 1970.”
When asked during the documentary if his views of the dictatorship changed over time, Pelé cryptically leaves the question hanging in the air: “My door was always open. Everyone knows this. And that includes when things were really bad.”
In a fitting end to his World Cup story, Pelé deals with the pressure on all fronts by delivering a sublime level of performance throughout the competition.
This reaches its apotheosis with the assist in the final to captain Carlos Alberto, who scored possibly the greatest team goal in history in the dying minutes of the 4-1 win over Italy, further romanticized by 1970 being the first World Cup broadcast in color.
Nevertheless, Pelé himself experienced a vastly different emotion.
“There’s a really telling line at the end of the film,” Tryhorn points out, “where you’re expecting Pelé to give us perhaps a ‘Pelé-ism,’ where he would talk about joy and happiness, but he actually talks about ‘relief.’”
‘The King’ or the GOAT?
Football fans will forever debate where Pelé sits in the pantheon of all-time greats.
Is he higher than, or equal to Diego Maradona? Or is he slightly lower than Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo due to the modern-day game’s relentlessness?
His prolific amount of goals – The Guinness Book of World Records lists 1,279 - and indisputable fact that Pelé remains the only player to win the World Cup on three occasions cannot be easily dismissed, nor is it by the documentary.
In 1971, Pelé played his final game for his country, and 50 years on, the documentary shows the Brazilian moved to tears by the memories of that era.
This is a man who suffered for his art, even if he did not use a brush, or a pen, but simply had a ball at his feet.