Pelé was the Derek Jeter of the mid-1970’s. He was the biggest sports star in New York, playing for the top team in the league. Having the resources and willingness to sign the best players in the world (exactly like Pelé), the New York Cosmos were the most popular American professional soccer team, arguably to this day (but the rest of the NASL league did not fare so well). However, nobody was showering money on young Edson “Dico” Arantes do Nascimento during his formative years in Jeff & Michael Zimbalist’s Pelé: Birth of a Legend (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.
Dico and his siblings are growing up cash-poor, but rich in spirit. Naturally, Nascimento and his street urchin friends love nothing more than playing through the streets and back alleys of Três Corações, much to the chagrin of his protective mother. She has had enough of football ever since her husband Dondinho’s career was cut short by a freak accident. Apparently, he stepped in a bear trap accidentally left on the field or something equally painful. In fact, the physical damage was not nearly as debilitating as the blow to his confidence. Recognizing his son’s talents, the elder Nascimento secretly trains him in the exuberant Brazilian “Ginga” style, in between cleaning toilets at the city hospital.
Eventually, Nascimento will stand up to Jose Altofini, the local wealthy, wannabe Aryan bully on the field and start to make a name for himself. Sure enough, teenage “Pelé,” as Altofini dubbed him is duly signed by the Três Corações farm team, playing his way up to the pro squad and the national team. However, “Ginga” is a dirty word for coach Vicente Feola, who blames the improvisational style of play for Brazil’s ignominious showings in the 1950 and 1954 World Cups. He therefore insists they play a slow, rigid, Euro style of play, leading to considerable strife within the team.
It is rather surprising the Zimbalist documentarian brothers, who previously helmed The Two Escobars, would take such a predictable, TV movie approach to Pelé. Forget subtlety. The poverty is never too grinding for them, nor can the Europeans ever be snobby enough. Swedish national coach George Raynor, as played with hissy contempt by Colm Meaney, represents an especially over-the-top caricature. It is hard to believe anyone would prattle on about breeding and racial purity at a press conference (especially considering how doggedly post-war Sweden was trying to sweep its WWII collaboration under the rug).
By far, the best thing going for Birth of a Legend is MPB recording star Seu Jorge, who soulfully anchors the film as Dondinho. Frankly, neither teenage Kevin de Paula Rosa or adolescent Leonardo Lima Carvalho have a fraction of his charisma, but they seem to have game. In fact, the Zimbalist Brothers rather perversely cast Nascimento as a brooding, joyless kid, who really is not much fun to hang with.