Here’s a slightly more upscale contribution to the deluge of feature-length football documentaries that have flooded our screens in the last few years. Pelé is the apex talent who underpinned Brazil’s rise to unquenchable glory in the 1960s, culminating in the epic 1970 victory over Italy in the World Cup final – itself crowned by the endlessly replayed Carlos Alberto goal set up by Pelé’s cute lay-off: the cherry on the icing of the cake of football’s golden age.
In truth, Pelé is’s stardom was partly founded on his smiley, boy-next-door persona and he is a fundamentally undramatic figure – certainly compared to the chaotic lord-of-misrule that was Diego Maradona, his only serious rival in the greatest-of-all-time stakes. Consequently, this admiring profile is considerably more sedate than Asif Kapadia’s rollicking biography of Maradona, though benefiting from an extensive interview with Pelé, who is now unable to walk without assistance.
While Pelé’s footballing feats – inspiring Brazil to three World Cup wins, spending almost his entire career knocking in more than 1,000 goals for the same small Brazilian club, a brief foray to New York in the mid-70s – may seem to belong to ancient history, there’s a comfort-blanket familiarity about running through them once again. Where this film does turn up interesting material is by filling in the context of Brazil’s turbulent history in the 60s and highlighting Pelé’s participation in legitimising the military coup. Pelé maintains his ingenuous stance was entirely non-political, but there is a degree of bitterness on show from contemporaries who didn’t have his celebrity privilege. And it’s eye-opening to see the tensions preceding the 1970 World Cup, given Brazil’s triumph, seemed pre-ordained.
But Pelé still possesses plenty of untarnished lustre as, arguably, the world’s first black sporting superstar, and the gold standard for footballing achievement for decades. (The Viagra ads he did at the turn of the millennium somehow don’t get a mention.) This valedictory film allows sober recognition for all that he did.
• Available from 23 February on Netflix.