The legend of Pele began with a sporting trauma. Eight years before he entered soccer’s consciousness in leading Brazil to the 1958 World Cup as a 17-year-old, Brazil lost to Uruguay 2-1 in what was effectively the 1950 World Cup Final, in front of 200,000 home supporters at the Maracana. The event delivered a blow to Brazil’s internal psychology, according to Pele, a documentary recently released on Netflix. The defeat created the space for a figure like Pele to appear years later and rewrite a cultural story of how a nation perceived itself within the larger world. One journalist described how Pele winning three World Cups (still an individual record) taught the country to symbolically love itself, breaking the inferiority complex following 1950.
Considering his career accomplishments and role in the rise of the commercialization of sport, his goal in the 1958 World Cup Final against Sweden could genuinely be the most important goal in soccer history. The imagination and technique more than holds up by today’s standards. But it is impossible to separate his rise coinciding with the optimism of Brazil’s development into modernity. He was living proof that the country could not only compete on a global stage, but be the best.
Those previous ideas of inferiority are difficult to parse today considering Brazil’s unquestioned place within the sport. Every generation has its own self-imposed limitations told through stories for a hero like Pele to reconcile and heal on their way to transcendency.
The documentary’s framing of Pele’s career through World Cup competitions shows how far the contemporary game has changed. Players now are measured by the Champions League, a competition created by European clubs that shifted the balance of power across the Atlantic (old interviews show how there has always been an uneasy relationship between South American and European soccer). Even Pele’s timeline is an anachronism, spending 18 years at Santos before a three-year run in the NASL without ever touching Europe.
But Pele also sped up the commercialization that tilted the balance towards Europe, particularly through the television medium. Television, and the marketing and commercialism it gave rise to, is an essential character in his rise. The 1950 World Cup had no visuals, only radio, with 1958 the first competition broadcasted to an international audience. We could finally see the dribbling, creativity, and goals from our living room. With television the gateway, Pele became the second-largest brand in the world at one point in the 70s - beyond banks and airlines - with only Coca-Cola surpassing his name. It’s difficult to grasp that scale, with television and advertising embedding Pele into our global language.
That era of advertising shaped our perceptions of Brazilian soccer that continues to resonate. The commercials of “Joga Bonito” leading into the 2006 World Cup played off the success that Pele built. We have global superstars like Neymar signing sneaker endorsement deals inspired by the 1970s nostalgia. It’s strange to think how there was a time when Brazil wasn’t in this elevated position in the sport, but the documentary shows the foundation of a paradigm shift. Similar to HBO, we weren’t watching soccer so much as we were watching the Brazilian game. We needed more, closer to us; Brazil exported 1,202 players across the world in 2017, the most of any country.
Pele noted that there was a specific inflection point when he began traveling more for commercial opportunities than for soccer, becoming more global brand than athlete. Politics would inevitably follow that amount of fame and power. Similar to other famous athletes and entertainers, he tried to remain partial, hoping that his athletic talent was enough to transcend publicly choosing sides.
Footage highlighting Brazil’s unrest in 1968 takes on added poignancy considering this past year of pandemic and global protest. In explaining his own lack of protest, Pele explained how Santos players, touring across Europe at the time, were physically distant from the immediacy of the social moment back home. It was their own version of a bubble, but 50 years earlier. There has always been an uneasy balance: we want our athletes to represent us, but they also have their own unique access within society.
Pele’s peers, including former Brazil president Fernando Henrique Cardoso, came to the striker’s defense when it came to his silence. They described how Pele’s ability on the field made the average person feel connected to society, and didn’t that transcend politics? Cardoso added that Pele belonged to Brazil regardless of who was leading the government. Other teammates were less forgiving, noting how his political neutrality worked against him considering the dictatorship. Pele’s silence was contrasted with Muhammad Ali’s outspokenness, but there was an extra layer of societal darkness here: Ali had some protection by being in America, whereas Pele had no guarantees for his physical safety following a coup.
The societal tension and anxiety lead up to the 1970 World Cup. Brazil’s success was again used as a tool to generate nationalistic feeling. In a sentiment echoed by athletes across the world in similar situations, Pele’s teammates considered whether winning was the right action in distracting away from protest.
For all of the questions surrounding Pele’s health heading into 1970, Brazil were hardly bothered in winning the tournament. Their 4-1 win over Italy in the final featured one of the great team goals of any competition. But then, the dictatorship would last another 15 years until 1985. History has its own momentum outside of sports.
The documentary inevitably draws comparisons with recent career retrospectives on Maradona and Michael Jordan. In having our main character narrate the film, Pele is closer to The Last Dance, with similarities down to how both protagonists were criticized for not using their political voices during their time.
These recent documentaries show the ingredients and atmosphere that creates a transcendent figure. It is as much about what we, the audience, impart on a player as the player’s accomplishments. That relationship gives agency to the audience. The descriptions of six-figure crowds watching Pele win World Cups is especially effective considering the current lack of supporters. What we’ll miss from this past year are the sporting myths.
Brazil’s 7-1 loss to Germany in the 2014 World Cup takes on new meaning within the documentary’s context, invoking memories of their Uruguay defeat over 60 years ago. As the aphorism goes, the past isn’t even the past, and new sporting traumas are created every season for the next generation of players to heal. Sports are physical competitions, but can be Shakespearean when taking in account psychology and timeline.
Can talent ever exist without context, and can a great goalscorer just be a great goalscorer regardless of when they appear on the arc of history? But Pele did appear at the right time in technology and history, winning the right trophies with the right skills for the right country. His trophies cemented the ability to tell his own story through his lens. For Pele, the soccer field was its own separate place featuring a simplicity existing beyond a divided society. Yet those same societal nuances and layers gave Pele the space and meaning to elevate into a global figure. Even by transcending, you were still a part of something to transcend from.