Pelé retired from football just a few years before I was born. I can’t remember how old I was the first time I heard of him. Everything I know about Pelé as an athlete was like hearing about a legend through oral storytelling. Watching him samba with the ball in archival TV footage was magical. I am not alone here. There are millions of people in Brazil and all over the world who will only ever see old grainy, usually black and white footage of this football legend on the field. As a Brazilian and as a football fan, the new documentary Pelé released by Netflix brought me real joy, but it also brought up some hard questions too.
Pelé has been slated as the best footballer ever. He played for the Brazilian national team and Santos FC for almost two decades. He dazzled the world and led arguably the best team ever to take to a football pitch: the Brazil 1970 World Cup squad. They won the World Cup in Mexico that year, which ultimately crowned Pelé as the king of football.
“The World Cup was important for the country, but at that moment I didn’t want to be Pelé”, he said early on in the documentary. I can’t imagine how much pressure he had on his shoulder.
When I was growing up playing football barefoot on the unpaved streets in the outskirts of São Paulo, we’d always pick a professional player that we’d each pretend to be. It made us feel like we really were football superstars that we dreamt of being. But there was one player you could never pick: Pelé. Nobody would dare to do it. He was untouchable.
Later on in life, I learned Pelé’s actual name is Edson Arantes do Nascimento. It sounded a little weird at first, and it made me realize he’s an actual person. He was perfect on the pitch, but, when it came to politics, he stayed silent. When Pelé was at the height of his career, Brazil was in turmoil and in the middle of a dictatorship. And Pelé, the country’s biggest unofficial ambassador, refused to say a single bad word against it. He assumed he didn’t know much about politics and would be in trouble if he spoke out against it.
Even after his retirement, as the most famous Black Brazilian ever, Pelé never really engaged in anti-racism discussions either. He never used his spotlight to help amplify the marginalized voices of his fellow Afro-Brazilians. He has been criticized for his apathy on bigger issues. Many other Brazilian football players, with a few exceptions, then followed his apathetic lead throughout the next generations.
The documentary did a good job of showing some rare archival footage, and it taught me a bit more about the King of football. It showed his contradictions: he was (and still is) someone who really had a voice, but decided not to speak up. In the end it didn’t change the fact Pelé is the greatest football player of all time. What he did on the football pitch will likely never be matched. Pelé is divine. But Edson Arantes do Nascimento, the man who chose to remain silent while off the pitch, is just another imperfect citizen like the rest of us.