A Big Missed Opportunity – Pelé (2021) Review

By Marcio Beck

Don’t expect an in-depth examination of Pelé’s life and character in the recently released Netflix documentary about him. Lower your expectations by… a lot. Despite several mentions of how the Brazilian dictatorship took advantage of the players and the Brazilian national football (soccer) team’s popularity, a few soft, vague questions about the subject – that lead to inane, vague answers – it boils down to a fluff piece on Pelé’s career, focused on his participation in the FIFA World Cup from 1958 to 1970. 

It’s a well-crafted documentary that however disappoints not for what it does say, but for what it doesn’t. What it doesn’t say would actually paint a character much more complex and interesting than the retired superhero athlete we see onscreen… but it would definitely be more difficult for the filmmakers to pull together and for the public to navigate.

The issue is that much of what ends up being shown is no more than a game-by-game highlights reel with sparse commentary. We hear from Pelé, but also from a list of Brazil’s football/soccer royalty: Pepe, Dorval, Jairzinho, Rivellino… which is nice, but all that has been said before in several documentaries about the World Cup and the Brazilian Team, and even about Pelé. This movie could’ve benefitted from information that surfaced in recent years, but for some reason, it doesn’t.

The most glaring omissions are of course related to Pelé’s claims he was apolitical, just a ballplayer doing his thing in the midst of political turmoil. The documentary approaches the topic a few times but only with the broadest of strokes. It doesn’t take a lot of research to find – or, at least, it shouldn’t  – what today we know to be true: That the extent of his relationship with the authoritarian regime goes way beyond shaking a dictator’s hand at celebrations. 

I find it hard to believe they were unaware of the extensive material that exists in Portuguese, so the only plausible scenario is that there was a deliberate choice to restrict the scope of the political discussion, either by the producers or by Pelé’s himself. It took eight months of negotiation through with the former player’s management to arrange the interview. 

The idea floated by journalist Juca Kfouri that the dictatorship might make Pelé “disappear” – a common eupemism for kidnap, torture or even murder – if he spoke out against the dictatorship is kind of ludicrous. The Brazilian junta knew better. It is a sort of attempt to rationalize or justify his inaction. Pelé himself clearly states the reason he never spoke out against the dictatorship: He was never bothered by it. Nothing changed in his life.

Documents found in 2010 in São Paulo State Public Archives revealed that Pelé was “investigated” by the political police (the Orwellian “Division of Political and Social Order – Dops”) in 1970. Sort of. During a public event, someone handed him a manifesto for the release of political prisoners. It was quickly determined, however, that it was an unforeseen act of a random person and Pelé just confirmed to the police he disagreed with communism and apparently offered to make public statements about the subject if the authorities thought it was necessary. They didn’t.

Another document from 1970, discovered in 2014, is a letter from Pelé to Brazil’s then-president, General Emilio Medici, in which the player thanks him for being chosen by the dictatorship to represent the country in soccer-related event in Mexico — traveling with expenses paid and a diplomatic visa for him and his wife. The letter was found in general Medici’s personal archive, donated by his son to the Brazilian Historical and Geographical Institute.

Side bar: The same collection of documents further proves the dictatorship often manipulated the country’s football team to their advantage. Medici received secrets reports from an unofficial member of the entourage, Paulo Buarque, about all that was going on with preparations for the World Cup. They even discussed details of the team’s roster and strategy. Considering that Zagallo was former military officer, and the team’s physical trainer, Carlos Alberto Parreira, an Army captain on active duty, one can imagine what other correspondence was going around at the time and hasn’t been found yet.

The decision to stop the documentary at the 1970 World Cup makes sense when you know that was his last actual performance. Not so much when Pelé publicly declared in 1999, in an interview to TV Bandeirantes a national network from São Paulo with a heavy emphasis on sports coverage, that he refused to play the 1974 World Cup because the Brazilian dictatorship had become detrimental to the people. The statement surprised many due to, again, the many times he claimed to be apolitical.

He repeated the claim about refusing to play in 1974 on Brazilian TV in 2014. The World Cup was being held in Brazil under heavy protests against the government for spending billions in building and renovating stadiums, through extremely overpriced “emergency” contracts, while cutting funding for education and public health. In the face of the protests aimed at the Brazilian national squad, Pelé asked people not to boo the team. 

On top of it all, Pelé was so “apolitical” that in 1995 he became Brazil’s first Minister of Sports, in a position created for him by then President Fernando Henrique Cardoso – who is interviewed in the movie. His main project, was the Lei Pelé (Pelé’s law) which freed players from the teams’ exclusive right to negotiate contracts, and provided several other measures to improve financial accountability from the teams.

Pelé’s personal life is shown in the most superficial way possible. His impoverished childhood, his dad was a soccer player, the marriate and divorce (following his many affairs) come up. There is no mention, however, of Sandra Regina, the daughter he had before getting married for the first time, who was recognized via DNA testing after years battling her father court, and who died of cancer without him ever speaking of her or helping to pay for her treatment. 

There is also zero mention to Pelé’s relationship with Xuxa, the blond, blue-eyed hostess of the most popular kids’ show on Brazilian TV. In a deeply racist Brazil their 5-year affair stirred a lot of controversy. Not only they were a mixed race couple, but the age gap was significant: she was 17 when they started dating and he was 40 and divorced, with three kids.

For Brazilians, pressing Pelé on any subject is taboo. In the country’s pantheon of sport superstars, he reigns supreme, with F1 racer Ayrton Senna in a close second place. The only footballer to ever conquer three World Cups. He was the first player to reach the milestone of 1,000 goals scored. Not to mention that after retiring he became a commentator for TV Globo, the country’s largest network. To say he is heavily shielded from criticism is an understatement. So, one would hope that a foreign documentary team wouldn’t be bound by these constraints and would produce something a little less fawning. Unfortunately, that’s not what is on the screen.