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In recent years, the reputation of “football’s greatest-ever player” has been somewhat tarnished, and it is now widely pre-supposed that there’s nothing he won’t lend his name to, whether that’s FIFA’s improbably diverse list of the world’s greatest living players or treatments for erectile dysfunction.
David Tryhorn and Ben Nicholas’ new Netflix documentary, simply titled Pelé, is a useful course correction. A combination of beautifully-restored archive footage and new interviews in the style of Asif Kapadia, it is a valuable reminder of what made O Rei such a phenomenon. Although it never quite reaches the level of hagiography—he receives some mild criticism for his disinterest in Brazil’s military dictatorship—it is a generous and serious portrait of Pelé from his childhood as a shoeshiner to the 1970 World Cup.
Mostly importantly, it is a rare Pelé documentary that never challenges his position as the greatest footballer of all time without being over-reliant on Pelé’s oft-ridiculed personal recollections. Instead, it uses former players, journalists, politicians and cultural figures to tell his story alongside him, backing it all up with plenty of footage of him effortlessly playing what he memorably called “o jogo bonito”.
His achievements are undeniable: three World Cup medals with Brazil—his first aged just 17—1,091 goals for Santos and a cultural footprint bigger than anyone else.
But, sixty years removed from his heyday, Pelé’s exploits have become mythologised, and this once revolutionary figure has apparently become little more than an establishment stooge.
Now aged 80, Pelé is finding himself increasingly marginalised by a football media landscape obsessed with the confected rivalry for best-player-ship between Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo—and the protracted search for their successor. With many of his fans and contemporaries vanishing into the obituary columns, there are few people left to defend Pelé’s achievements as they are eaten away by Messi and Ronaldo, and his reputation as even that is rewritten by FIFA record-keepers.
Indeed, the continued achievement-hoarding of Messi and Ronaldo seems to have redefined what constitutes success in football. Now, individual greatness is measured by the number of Champions League medals, Ballon d’Or trophies and superlative-laden column inches in a player’s collection; Pelé, who remained in South America for almost his entire career, simply cannot compete. Even Maradona, who won neither accolade, seems to be taken more seriously simply by virtue of having played in Europe—and doing it while cultivating the kind of sexy, bad-boy image that boring, straight-laced FIFA-suit Pelé has never possessed.
And now, Pelé’s best-known achievements have been written out of the history books. His thousand-goal tally for Santos has been erased, with football authorities discounting the 448 scored in friendlies. Even the not unimpressive revised total of 643 goals scored for a single club has since been surpassed by Lionel Messi, while his overall total of 775 goals in 841 “official” games has been overtaken by Ronaldo. Pelé has conspicuously failed to congratulate the pair, tarnishing his reputation even further.
Santos were predictably outraged. In a statement, the club accused FIFA and the media of “historical revisionism”, argued (not unfairly) that many of Pelé’s friendly goals had been scored against top European opposition such as Juventus, Real Madrid and Lionel Messi’s own Barcelona, and pointed out that Pelé, addressed only as “The King”, had in fact issued a weak message of acknowledgement to Messi.
It’s obviously in Santos and Pelé’s interest to massage his reputation, but his continued insistence on this improbably illustrious career has inevitably elicited mockery from a generation unwilling to accept his mythology at face value, in particular a contemporary English-language media unable to comprehend a career played outside of Europe—and one without a YouTube highlights reel set to EDM.
It has become a kind of shibboleth among a new brand of football blogger or young “journo” that Pelé is a kind of untrustworthy, senile old man prone to acts of exaggeration and third-person arrogance.
There’s no better case study for this shift in attitude and the uncritical acceptance of this narrative than the story of Pelé’s best and most memorable goal, as told by Pelé. It is, by his account, a work of unfalsifiable magic, scored against Sao Paulo rivals Clube Atlético Juventus in August 1959, aged just 18: receiving the ball on the edge of the box, Pelé allegedly twisted the ball round one defender, chipped it over two others in quick succession, then lifted the ball up to head it in. This was, so Pelé says, such a remarkable goal that even the Juventus players and their supporters congratulated him.
It is unsurprising that the English-language lad-o-sphere has taken the opportunity to dismiss Pelé’s claim. givemesport.com says “because no one actually saw it, we just have to take Pele’s word for it”, while Sport Bible is even more dismissive, writing “there’s even more reason to call the 78-year-old a fraud and mock him.”
Fair enough, it’s an absurd, laughable story and an unlikely goal. With no video evidence—the animation he requested be created of the goal notwithstanding—and no contemporary report of this wonder goal in Sao Paulo’s most-read newspaper, Folha da Noite, it’s easy to be sceptical. Surely, this is just another of Pelé’s tall tales. What’s more, the only corroborating evidence comes from the other 21 players on the pitch, the stadium full of spectators and the journalist and photographer from O Estado de S. Paulo newspaper who reported on this very goal taking place.
The media’s relentless quest for clicks and the absence of English-language sources has made questioning the received wisdom of Pelé’s inherent unreliability unfashionable. But we have translation services at our fingertips, and it only takes a quick visit to O Estado de S. Paulo’s freely-available archive (or indeed the special page of Pelé stories prepared to celebrate his eightieth birthday) to find not only a report on this wonder goal, but also a captioned picture of the teenage Pelé actually scoring it, translated by us:
“PELÉ: A RARE GOAL. The fourth and final Santos goal, scored by Pelé, was remarkable. Penetrating the Juventus area, the Santos forward was faced by the defender Mão de Onça and feinted him by lifting the ball over his body; Clovis flew to the aid of the defender and was jinked in the same way. When the ball fell behind Clovis, Pelé dominated it with his left foot, lifted it up with his right foot and completed the shot with a light header. The game stopped; the Juventus players themselves ran to greet Pelé. The crowd frenetically saluted the author of the goal against its own club.”
Improbable though it may be, the greatest goal Pelé ever scored, from the multiple feints to the opposition players joining in in appreciation, really did take place just as he claims. Rather than a kind of octogenarian Jay from The Inbetweeners, spinning increasingly absurd lies to impress his mates, Pelé really was capable of these feats of football wizardry. We’ve become so accustomed to Messi and Ronaldo’s exploits, expertly engineered and immaculately packaged daily in glorious HD, that many of us now find it difficult to imagine the half-remembered, black-and-white, samba-and-favelas stories of Pelé as anything other than onanistic exaggeration.
Pelé is the ur-superstar. He has become a near-mythological figure, a set of cliché’s about shoe-shining and bare feet football that almost demands questioning and “debunking”. The fact he later become part of the football establishment, a kind of FIFA creature to be wheeled out whenever they needed a famous face to promote their latest PR exercise has inevitably removed some of the mystique and revolutionary wonder surrounding him, like a populist firebrand politician forced by the crushing weight of reality to “play the game” of politics. And for modern bloggers and journos, far detached from his playing days, it’s fair easier to be cynical than sincere.
But in Brazil, there’s no compulsion to undermine his achievements, not just because of nationalism, but because the evidence of his greatness is all around them, embedded into their culture.
Pelé retired fourteen years before I was born. I can’t tell you whether he was the greatest player ever, but I can tell you he was a poor kid from Minas Gerais who become the first black global superstar footballer based only on sheer talent and perseverance—isn’t it funny how we’ve forgotten that, even in this era of Black Lives Matter?—who has almost no scandals to his name, and who comes across as a decent, friendly, if self-promoting old man.