Pele breaks down in tears and admits he was 'no Superman' as he recalls pressure he put himself under as football star

AN 80-year-old man, unable to walk without help, sitting alone, beating out a rhythm on a shoeshine box.

But Edson Arantes do Nascimento – Pele – is far, far more than an old sporting warrior.

He remains, even now, an emblem of his country. Icon. Hero. Superstar. And also controversial.

Not for his feats on the pitch. Those glories will always be there. 

But off the pitch, the beating heart of his nation even when it was undergoing violent, seismic change, run by a military regime underpinned by torture and repression, and criticised by even some of his closest friends and team-mates.

In a new documentary, charting his life from childhood poverty to the 'greatest moment of my life' in Mexico City’s Azteca Stadium in 1970, that part of Pele that is explored as much as the sporting prowess.

Pele, out on Netflix from February 23, shows his integral place in Brazilian consciousness.

Yes, we see Pele, The King. 

Unforgettable moments, from the brilliant turn past a befuddled Mel Charles to beat Wales in the 1958 World Cup quarter-final through to that soaring header against Italy 12 years later.

In grainy black and white, we see the swerves, tricks and stunning finishes, why he became the embodiment of Brazil’s post-War economic explosion.

A journey from football prodigy to walking billboard, bound too early by marriage vows he could not keep, only finding release with a ball at his feet. 

Yet kicked from pillar to post in 1966, after which, with despair in his voice, he declared he would not be back.

There are tears, mainly from Pele himself as he recalls the pressures he put himself under.

And laughs, especially when his old Santos team-mates pop round for lunch, feasting as much on the memories as the food placed in front of them.

The cocky, innocent street urchin was transformed, by his own skills and the changes in his country, into something far more potent.

A weapon of internal war, coming under pressure from all sides.

From those who wanted him to be more like Muhammad Ali, to stand up and be counted, to speak out against the Generals and their death squads, intimidation and fear.

And from those in charge, who sacked coach Joao Saldanha – not against Pele’s will given a spectacular fall-out in which the No10 had been accused of being virtually blind – on the eve of that 1970 tournament.

As Pele recalls: “The World Cup was important for the country. 

“But in that moment, I didn’t want to be Pele. I didn’t like it, I didn’t want it. I was praying: God, this is my last World Cup, help me prepare for my last World Cup.”

Even now, half a century on, those anxieties are still there, the recognition that some Brazilians cannot forgive or forget his public neutrality.

He added: “I don’t think I could have done anything different. It wasn’t possible. 

“You get lost in these things. I’m Brazilian. I want what’s best for my people. 

“I was no Superman, I didn’t work miracles or anything. I was just a normal person granted the gift of being a football player. 

“But I’m absolutely certain I’ve done more for Brazil, with football, in my own way, than many politicians have done.” 

In that, surely, he is right, and Pele’s voice, his essential being, shines through nearly two hours of fascinating material.

And Pele remains The King. As one cultural commentator explains: “Pele was a shining star, glowing in the black sky of Brazilian life.

“He symbolised the promise of a fairer and happier country. That’s what he represented.”

*Pele, directed by David Tryhorn and Ben Nicholas, is available on Netflix from February 23.

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