The name Edson Arantes do Nascimento might not ring bells in the ears of a majority of North American viewers, but the godlike name he came to be known by— Pelé — is known the world over, even decades after he left the soccer pitch. The Brazilian football star, profiled in a new Netflix documentary simply titled Pelé, helped push his home country over the top on the world stage with his dazzling play, becoming the only player in history to win three World Cups and rewriting the sport’s record books in the process. This handsome documentary film provides context to his life and career, showing how it happened at a tumultuous time in Brazil’s history.
The Gist: Here in the United States, there’s been a lot of talk recently about what athletes have a legitimate claim to the title of “GOAT”—that is, the Greatest Of All Time. Commentators have argued that Tom Brady’s sixth Super Bowl win secures his place with other all-time greats such as Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, Serena Williams and so on. One name that’s often left out of that discussion is that of Pelé—the preeminent soccer star of his generation, one who captivated audiences around the world and seemed to redefine what was possible on the pitch, just as the sport was coming of age in the television era.
His rise to stardom came at a pivotal time in his country’s history—first as the sleeping giant sought to define itself as a modern, industrial power, and then as it struggled through a military coup and repressive dictatorship. Through it all, Pelé was a point of pride for millions of Brazilians—a man who demonstrated that they could compete with the world’s best on the field and off.
What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: Any recent sports documentary is going to have to answer to ESPN’s Michael Jordan epic The Last Dance, but this also bears a similar format to the recent HBOMax doc Tiger—it’s a straightforward look at a legend of the sports world, and doesn’t ever stray far from that purpose.
Performance Worth Watching: The only performance worth watching is that of Pelé himself—archival highlights show a style of play that doesn’t seem dated even sixty years later.
Memorable Dialogue: “He made Brazilians proud to say ‘We won’t bow our head to the British, to the Germans, the French or Italians, because when it comes to football, we are better than you!’”, one contemporary notes.
Sex and Skin: Nothing to speak of, though there is casual mention of the star’s occasional infidelities while traveling the world.
Our Take: The film wastes little time jumping to the meat of its story—although a brief introduction is made to Pelé’s young life, a humble, working-class upbringing that saw him shining shoes and playing football after school, it quickly jumps to to his debut with the Brazilian national club in the 1958 World Cup. Led by the then-17-year-old, Brazil would win that tournament, launching him into the stratosphere of international sports stars. Soccer’s first millionaire, he dominated in club play and won endorsements for a wide range of products, becoming one of the most recognizable faces in the world, Michael Jordan long before Michael Jordan.
Of course, his role was far more important to his fans than that of Jordan—he was a proxy for Brazil’s rise, more than a century after independence, from a sleepy agricultural nation to a modern, first-world power. “He became a symbol of Brazil’s emancipation,” one interviewee notes. “Kids from the slums could see themselves in him. Through him, Brazilians learned to love themselves.” Despite this, he projected a humble image in interviews, insisting that he did not see himself—or any one player—as being worthy of the title of ‘the world’s greatest player’.
The story of Pelé’s football career is shown as a sort of measuring stick for the modern history of Brazil—his first two World Cup wins in 1958 and 1962 coming as the nation burst onto the world stage, but then continuing through a darker era following a military coup in 1964 and a brutal dictatorship cracking down on freedoms in 1968, a time that saw widespread torture and murder at the hands of the state. Despite the film featuring Pelé himself in extensive on-screen interviews, it’s not without a critical eye—it’s made clear that his life and career was able to continue mostly unbothered as many of his countrymen suffered, his stardom insulating him as the repressive government realized his importance to the country’s image abroad. “Muhammad Ali was different,” one friend notes, comparing his relative silence to the boxing great’s vocal stance against injustice in America at the same time, “but dictatorships are dictatorships. Ali faced prison, but he never feared for his life.”
The film isn’t absolutely exhaustive in its retelling of the star’s life—it glosses over his youth, and ends with his comeback to lead Brazil to a third title in the 1970 World Cup. There’s only a glancing, postscript look at his later career, such as how he helped introduce North American audiences to the international game in a stint with the New York Cosmos. It’s not a miniseries, though, and within the constraints of a sub-two-hour runtime it does a very capable job of condensing the most important parts of his illustrious career into a tight, cohesive narrative.
Our Call: STREAM IT. If you’re already well-versed in the details of Pelé’s career, you might not find new ground being broken here. If you’re a sports fan who’s generally familiar with the man’s name but not just how it became synonymous with soccer stardom, though, it’s just the right amount of detail, a worthy look at one of the few athletes who could lay claim to the title of The Greatest Of All Time.
Scott Hines is an architect, blogger and internet user who lives in Louisville, Kentucky with his wife, two young children, and a small, loud dog.