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Netflix: Pelé: Harry Mount

Arts | By Harry Mount

Pelé dominated football from 1958 to 1970 - this documentary focuses on his extraordinary comeback at the 1970 World Cup. It's a joy, says Harry Mount

The most shocking moment in this engaging documentary is Pelé’s first appearance on screen.

His unlined face is still great at 80 – he looks 50. But in that first appearance, the great man has to use a stroller after hip surgery. Later on, he’s in a wheelchair.

It’s a sad transformation from that coiled, five-foot-eight spring of energy who dominated football from 1958 to 1970. Only England’s World Cup win in 1966 prevented Brazil from winning four World Cups in a row.

There's a danger that such constant success – and a contented life, apart from a few affairs and the hip surgery – would make a Pelé documentary a bit dull.

Recent documentaries on Diego Maradona, Paul Gascoigne, George Best and Ayrton Senna were all heightened, I’m afraid, by the footballers’ flaws and, in Senna’s case, his death at 34. Pelé has already outlived poor Best and Maradona by 20 years.

But the documentary is given an enthralling arc by concentrating on the 1970 World Cup and the build-up to it.

The 1966 World Cup was a disaster for Pelé and Brazil. In 1970, some thought that, at 29, he’d had it. Even the old Brazil coach said – wrongly – that Pelé was losing his eyesight.

So when he explodes back to life in the 1970 World Cup, it’s a thrill – even, I’d say, for non-football fans.

As the team gets better and better, he visibly relaxes. By the time Brazil meets Italy in the Final, the team is an amalgam of supreme skill and cool confidence. They smash Italy 4-1, finishing off with the World Cup’s most famous goal – Carlos Alberto’s 86th-minute strike, the culmination of a wondrous series of passes, the last of them from a super-chilled Pelé.

He seems so calm, charming and unspoilt throughout his life. But he admits he felt under intense pressure in 1970.

‘The greatest gift you get from victory isn’t the trophy – it’s the relief,’ he says about the 1970 win. In the dressing room afterwards, Pelé shouted three times, ‘I’m not dead!’

He had added pressure from the vicious military dictatorship that ran Brazil from 1964 to 1985. The swaggering President, Emílio Garrastazu Médici, muscles in on the 1970 victory at every opportunity. Some have attacked Pelé for not criticising the regime – but would you speak out against a regime that liked torturing critics?

This lovely documentary only goes wrong in the translated voiceovers of the players: Pelé sounds like Swiss Tony, the smooth car-dealer in The Fast Show: his teammate Pepe sounds like an old Cockney; another teammate, Zagallo, sounds like Christopher Hitchens. That apart, it’s a joy.

Pelé straddles the footballing ages: from the black-and-white era of heavy, sodden balls and slow-moving players to the Technicolor samba of 1970, with those heavenly, gold-and-green Brazil shirts.

Brazil are the only team to have won the World Cup five times. Pelé is the only player to have won it three times. He scored 1,283 goals in 1,367 games. Unbeatable.

This story was from April 2021 issue. Subscribe Now