Netflix documentary Pelé seeks to humanize the Brazilian soccer star's rise from poverty to prodigy
'We wanted to ... get rid of the myth and show the man,' says filmmaker David Tryhorn
More than 1,300 professional games played across 21 years; 1,283 goals scored, including 92 hat-tricks; appearances in four FIFA World Cup tournaments, winning three.
It's easy to get lost in the record-breaking numbers that made Edson Arantes do Nascimento — better known as Pelé — one of the greatest soccer players of all time.
That's why when filmmakers David Tryhorn and Ben Nicholas set out to create the documentary Pelé, they focused on the stories that defined Pelé.
"It's a subject matter that a lot of people have a knowledge of, but it's quite superficial," Tryhorn told Day 6 host Brent Bambury. "So we wanted to humanize him — get rid of the myth and show the man."
Pelé touches on the Brazilian footballer's influence on the pitch, from his great goals to the trophies he won. But it also addresses some of Pelé's flaws, including affairs during his marriage to his first wife Rosemeri dos Reis Cholbi, and his apolitical nature.
Nicholas says this approach was key to separating their documentary from others about Pelé.
"We were desperate to do it, but we always said we want to tell this in a new way. We don't want the same old story," he said.
Tryhorn and Nicholas attempted to capture the emotion surrounding, in part, by revisiting some of the key moments from Pelé's life and career.
In one scene, Pelé, 80, holds a shoeshine box. The directors gave it to him as a way for him to reconnect to his impoverished childhood as a shoeshiner.
Suddenly, without prompt, Pelé begins to drum on the box.
"To have that image at the beginning and at the end, it kind of speaks very loudly to his journey — where he came from, and just how crazy his level of achievement was — to come from where he did to achieve what he did," Nicholas said.
In another scene, Pelé recalls the 1958 World Cup, which was held in Sweden.
Although he was only 17 years old at the time, Pelé was called up to play for the Brazilian national team, making him the then-youngest player to appear in a World Cup.
He went on to score six goals across the tournament, including two in the final against Sweden, as Brazil won its first World Cup.
"It was like a dream. Amazing, you know," Pelé told the documentary team before breaking down into tears.
Pelé the character
Pelé's early sporting success couldn't have come at a better time for Brazil. As Pelé continued to break records, Brazil's industry and culture were developing.
At his peak, Pelé wasn't just a star soccer player, he was also a national institution. He appeared in various advertisements and commercials, and he and his club, Santos Futebol Clube, were often invited to play against teams from other nations and continents.
"He is someone who just gets how to be a star in that era … and I think he also gets what people want from their stars in that era," Nicholas said.
But the attention also came to Pelé's detriment.
In 1964, members of the Brazilian Armed Forces overthrew then-president João Goulart's government. The coup d'etat, supported by the United States, was sparked by accusations that Goulart was a communist.
The coup resulted in a military junta and the eventual swearing in of military leader Emílio Garrastazu Médici as president in 1969.
As Brazil's cultural superstar, Brazilians pleaded with Pelé to speak out against the coup and Médici — to oppose the government like Muhammad Ali, another Black sports star, had done in the United States.
"By this point, Pelé's already created this kind Pelé character for himself, which up to now has been working just beautifully. And he's got a decision to make," Nicholas said.
Ultimately, he kept his mouth shut.
"My door was always open. Everyone knows that, even back when things were really bad," Pelé said in the documentary when asked about his relationship to various governments.
Relief with victory
Though some Brazilians were frustrated by Pelé's apolitical stance, when the 1970 World Cup rolled around, Pelé's critics couldn't stop themselves from supporting him.
"I went there to cheer for the opposition…. But with football, your heart rules your head. You forget your principles when the ball starts rolling," journalist José Trajano told the documentary crew.
The tournament would be a significant one for Pelé. The 29-year-old directly contributed to more than half of his team's goals, securing a third World Cup win for his country.
With that win, Pelé, who initially wanted to sit out this tournament due to Brazil's disappointing elimination in 1966, became the first and only player to win the World Cup three times.
"The greatest gift you get from victory isn't the trophy. It's the relief," Pelé told the filmmakers.
Nicholas says that while Pelé remained apolitical off the pitch, winning the World Cup was his way of doing what he felt was best for his country.
"He thinks that he did his talking on the pitch, essentially, and he thinks he did a lot of good for a lot of people and opened a lot of doors — smashed down the doors for lots of groups of people in Brazil," he said.
Written by Mouhamad Rachini. Produced by Pedro Sanchez.