Brazilian legend Pele rose from slums to superstardom
New Pele film premiered at Tribeca Film Festival in New York
Only player to ever win three World Cups
He won his first as a 17-year-old in Sweden
To any fan of the beautiful game, Pele is much more than just a retired footballer: He’s a global icon.
Emerging from the slums of Brazil, Pele led his country to three World Cup titles – more than any player in history – and experienced a career of dizzying heights that even he could not have imagined.
“I don’t know why God gave me this experience, I never expected to be Pele or to be known all over the world,” the legendary striker told CNN’s Don Riddell before the recent premiere of his biopic “Pele: Birth of a Legend” in New York. “I wanted to be a footballer. I wanted to be like my father.”
The inspirational rags-to-riches feature, written and directed by American brothers Jeff and Michael Zimbalist, was showcased at the Tribeca Film Festival last weekend and goes on general release next month.
Known for their football documentary “The Two Escobars,” the brothers couldn’t believe their luck when Pele agreed to the project.
“There is a certain magical presence that enters with Pele,” said Jeff Zimbalist. “We can have all of the big swells of emotion and riveting play action of a classic sports narrative, but we can also have this deeply personal and psychological journey.”
It’s a story that begins with Pele’s days as a youngster in Sao Paulo, following his rise from a poor shoe-shiner to a prodigious teenager and, ultimately, a world champion at the tender age of 17. The younger Pele is played by Leonardo Lima Carvalho; Kevin de Paula plays the adult version.
Pele credits his father, former Fluminense player Dondinho – played by Seu Jorge – as his source of inspiration by pushing him to perfect all his moves, including his famous bicycle kick, the poster image of the film.
“I think it was a lot of work; hard work and training. My father insisted to me to repeat and repeat,” Pele reflected, adding that the acrobatic strike was also “a gift from God.”
“My dad was a good football player, he scored a lot of goals,” he explained. “He was famous in Brazil, in Minas Gerais. He was my role model. I always wanted to be like him, but what happened, to this day, only God can explain.”
The soccer demigod – who scored over 1,000 goals for club and country (including friendlies) – admitted to getting chocked up at the depiction of him as a youngster.
“I started to remember the beginning of my career,” said Pele. “I am emotional normally. I cry easily.”
What really struck a chord was being picked for Brazil’s national team at the age of 16: “It was like a dream (that) I was selected; it was beautiful.”
At 75, the Pele of today is more grounded after suffering several health scares in recent years. In January, he underwent a hip operation, but is eager to be done with physiotherapy in time for this summer’s Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
“Only since I stopped playing soccer did I start having problems,” he lamented.
Not only did Pele exude all the attributes required to prosper at the top level, he also exhibited a rare commodity in modern day soccer – loyalty.
Watching grainy clips of Pele in his pomp would make any modern fan swoon just as much as a show reel of today’s leading players, like Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo or Argentine Lionel Messi.
And although his talents were coveted around the world, he opted to stay with Santos for 18 years – winning over 20 major titles in the process.
He only ever donned the colors of one more club – New York City Cosmos, during a three-year stint in which he did much for the burgeoning popularity of soccer in North America.
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Given the multimillion-dollar transfers of 2016, it’s impossible to put a price on Pele’s head if he were operating in today’s market.
And if Pele hadn’t chosen a path in football, what might he have been?
“Well, look it’s a little difficult, because I really love composing music, playing the guitar, playing the violin,” he revealed.
“So perhaps if I wasn’t a footballer I think I would compose music and sing.”
Pele: The Heart of a King
Chris Murphy contributed to this article