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Netflix’s ‘Pele’ documentary teaches us about the strains on professional footballers

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On the surface, Pele’s football career was one that encapsulated joy and success. His journey began at the tender age of fifteen; within fourteen years he had won three World Cups and ascended to the peak of his country’s goalscoring charts with a record that still stands today, all while staking his claim to be considered the greatest footballer of all time. Who wouldn’t be jealous of that career?

Netflix’s new documentary casts a shadow over these fairytales. Pele’s spell as the greatest sportsman alive was incredible, almost mystical, but it was far from the glamorous charade we’ve been led to believe. We are now being enlightened to the real pressures which were forced on the superstar’s shoulders by both his country’s people and government.

The 1970 World Cup has widely been considered the pinnacle of exciting, attacking football. This was the last tournament in which free-flowing, intuitive tactics were utilised before system-orientated football began to take over, and Pele was at the centre of this beauty. This was his World Cup.

It was therefore startling to learn that upon re-entering the dressing room after Brazil’s 4-1 win over Italy, Pele’s exclamations consisted not of stereotypical delight, but of relief at merely surviving. “I didn’t die!” he shouted. He shouted those words for a second time. Then a third. Those aren’t the words we are accustomed to hearing upon capturing football’s greatest prize. 

This documentary brings to light the side to a footballer’s life that often remains hidden. The pressure, the media attention, the strain on family life. The demand to perform week in, week out, year after year. In Pele’s case, these burdens were multiplied due to his status as the world’s first global black sportsman. 

When the now 80-year-old Pele breaks down crying remembering that 1970 victory, something tugs at our insides. Footballers, past or present, don’t usually show this kind of emotion. These tears aren’t of joy or sentiment; they are the result of old demons re-emerging as he thinks back to a turbulent time in Brazil’s history.

Image credit: Pintrest

Pele, caught in the middle of Brazil’s authoritarian military dictatorship age, was often faced with a dilemma; side with his people and risk being tortured, or support what appeared to be a cruel government? The documentary suggests he often chose the latter option, but attempted to maintain his famous political neutrality. 

This dilemma was inflated by the fact he was considered by his country as a source of hope. Amidst their darkest hour, Brazil’s people found solace in football – and in Pele. He gave them a joy they had become so devoid of. If he didn’t perform well, the people would continue to suffer. 

The dictatorship added to this pressure, with the government seemingly playing a significant role in Pele’s participation at the 1970 World Cup – a tournament he had previously claimed he would not attend. The weight on a relatively young man’s shoulders was immense – Netflix often utilise the word “responsibility”.

For most footballers today, the expectations thrust upon them aren’t quite as striking – most aren’t pivotal figures in the political situations in home countries. However, we need to learn from Pele’s experience. He was an ordinary man with an extraordinary talent. Society therefore put extraordinary pressure on him. 

We need to learn from this. We need to refrain from putting these strains on footballer’s lives – they have enough to be getting on with. They are normal people, just like us. They make mistakes, just like we do. They’re doing their job, just like we are. If you ever find yourself in the mood to criticise a footballer anymore than is necessary, revisit this documentary and watch Pele crying. Remember what too much pressure can do to even the best footballers.

This documentary is an honest portrayal and is definitely worth a watch. Pele’s magnificence with the ball at his feet is shown in the only way that can do it justice; through video. Words simply don’t cut it. The joy he and his teammates brought to Brazil is emphasised. 

Football is a key protagonist. But it’s Pele’s personal struggles that really drive the narrative. Netflix’s documentary will teach a lot of people to treat footballers differently – as they should.

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