What does Pelé have in common with the Beatles? They are both mass cultural phenomena, huge in the 60s. They're both the greatest in their field, you could argue. And the release of yet another book or movie about either may well be greeted with a shrug by all but the keenest of scholars. What can be said about either that hasn't been said a thousand times before?
Watch the new Netflix documentary Pelé and, despite the uninspired title, shed any such prejudice and let yourself be drawn in to this well-structured, multi-voiced study of the player's place in Brazilian history. If listening to The White Album never gets old, neither does gasping at Pelé as he weaves his way through static defenders. There's another much more interesting layer here, though. While the Beatles helped put the V in Vietnam, as Guy Chadwick once sang, a reluctant Pelé dribbled into the D marked Dictatorship.
The movie starts with a passing glimpse at Pelé's humble youth years, his work as a shoe-shiner to help the family finances, and his signing by the low-lying Santos. Suddenly we're at the 1958 World Cup watching the gifted, graceful 17-year-old striker take his country to its first sensational title, fixing with a few precocious chips and well-placed volleys the national trauma of the 1950 final lost to Uruguay on home turf.
Sitting in a sparse room after arriving with a walker, the somber 80-year-old considers each word carefully before he speaks, in contrast to the clips we see of his smiling, garrulous younger self at the field-side, multiple mics thrust beneath his nose. After the 1958 World Cup, says musician Gilberto Gil, Pelé "was seen as royalty. He became a symbol of Brazil's emancipation." The global tours with Santos over the following years put his country on the map as it emerged from relative obscurity into a confident, burgeoning nation. Victory at the 1962 World Cup, despite Pelé missing most of the tournament through injury, only served to boost the mood.
That all changed overnight in 1964 when the reformist, left-leaning President João Goulart was overthrown in a military coup on the fallacious grounds that he was a communist. The coup was tacitly supported, at the very least, by the U.S. Democratic administration, and over the next two decades lead to the exile, torture and disappearance of thousands of opponents, as well as the suspension of liberties and civil rights.
As though hobbled by its own government, Brazil failed to make it through the group stage at the 1966 World Cup, where Pelé was subject to brutal foul play unpunished by shockingly lenient referees. Soccer was changing, as Pelé pointed out before the tournament: "Now teams only play for results. Football has become ugly." Portugal marked him closely and kicked him off the field. The player had been "hammered out of the World Cup," noted an English TV commentator. Disillusioned, the player declared that the tournament would be his last.
As the Mexico 1970 World Cup approached, however, Pelé came under pressure from the military regime to re-join the national side. People were always trying to get him to take sides, Pelé says now, but he wasn't a political person. President Emílio Médici, by contrast, loved to be seen at the Maracana Stadium on a Sunday holding a radio to his ear, making out he was a man of the people's game. He also wanted Pelé to play at Mexico 70. After Pelé scored his 1,000th goal in 1969, he sent for the player and three days later the two embraced before the cameras, all smiles and congratulations.
A straight-talking barber says that one statement from Pelé about the injustices of the regime "would have gone a long way in Brazil." He was disappointed that his hero remained silent and complicit. Why was Pelé not like the free-talking Muhammad Ali when he refused the draft and opposed the Vietnam War? Well, runs the counter-argument, Ali lived in a free country with free speech. Pelé had no such leeway.
Pelé admits that he didn't want to play in Mexico, but he signed up anyway. The team was lacking confidence and in disarray. Coach João Saldanha was fired two months before the tournament after spreading the bizarre rumor that Pelé's eyesight was shot. The No. 10 got on far better with the reinstated coach Mário Zagallo. After falling behind early to Czechoslovakia in their opening group game, an otherworldly free kick from Rivelino seemed to set the team free, and it began to play like Brazilians used to before soccer turned ugly.
One journalist admits that he traveled to the tournament hoping that Brazil would lose, because he knew a victory would bolster the military regime. Then during the games his emotions became caught up in the brilliance of the team. How could you not love this side and the way they played? Watching the documentary as a soccer fan, you can't help but feel the same. As the tournament unrolls you're only rooting for one country, and you've forgotten that back home, while there's dancing in the streets, there's also glee and back-slapping among the generals and their henchmen.
That's testimony not only to this absorbing movie, but to the power of sport too, for better and worse. The dictatorship benefited from Brazil's 1970 title, "but it wasn't Médici's victory, it was Pelé's", says one voice. How, they ask, is the dictatorship remembered vs. how Pelé is remembered? Obviously, the soccer star comes out of this with his sporting reputation intact, but the military regime ruled with an iron fist for another 15 years. Here is a chilling, heart-breaking photo-list -- produced by the National Truth Commission, state truth commissions, human rights' groups and relatives -- of the killed and disappeared during Brazil's 21 years of brutal dictatorship.
Of course you cannot lay the blame for these murders at the feet of mere sportsmen who were only doing their jobs under pressure from a ruthless and violent fascist state. That's what makes this film so absolutely fascinating -- the unspeakable, bloody crimes in the background to the most joyous, liberating soccer ever seen at a World Cup.