When the Brazilian Olympic Football team take the field at the Rio Olympics in August, they will be carrying more than the heightened expectations typical of a host nation. For a country that has won the FIFA World Cup an unprecedented five times, Olympic gold is the only piece missing in the crown jewels of the undisputed kings of world football.
Amidst the backdrop of arguably the most controversial and scrutinised Olympics buildup in modern history, the host nation sees football not only as one of their best medal hopes at the Rio games, but a chance at redemption for a team whose recent outings have ended in ignominious failure.
When Brazil lost 7-1 to Germany in the 2014 World Cup semi-final in Rio, the shock marked an existential crisis for a nation that views football and Catholicism as the twin pillars of society. Two years later and the side crashed out in the group stages of the centennial Copa America tournament in June.
Such is the significance placed on Olympic glory that Neymar, captain and current star of the Brazilian team, opted to sit out the Copa America, in consultation with his club side Barcelona, to focus on the competition in Rio.
Neymar is the latest in a long lineage of deified Brazilian footballers who are seen to embody both the beautiful game and their fierce national spirit. It is a dynasty unrivalled in world sport and can be traced back to the emergence of Pelé, whose life and career has been given the silver-screen treatment in the upcoming biopic “Pelé: Birth of a Legend”.
The film tracks Pelé’s journey from a poverty-stricken childhood in the Sao Paolo slums to winning the World Cup in 1958 at the tender age of 17 and emerging as a national hero. Widely considered the greatest footballer of all time, Pelé remains the only player to have won the World Cup on three occasions and was also named ‘Athlete of the Century’ by the International Olympic Committee.
“Pelé: Birth of a Legend” is an earnest attempt at capturing the essence of a larger-than-life sporting icon, whose celebrity and controversies later came to transcend the sport. It touches on the issues of racism and classicism that defined Brazilian society, but suffers as an overly melodramatic hagiography that charts Pelé’s exploits as akin to those of a Marvel superhero.
Despite its warm aesthetic and vibrant cinematography, the film ultimately plays like any other hackneyed sports movie, replete with physics-defying training montages and cartoonish rivals.
Yet it’s hard to truly capture the extent to which Pelé defined Brazilian sporting culture — a peerless athlete whose unique style and personal achievements remain unmatched half a century later. If Neymar and Brazil are to achieve Olympic gold in Rio, they need look no further than Pelé for inspiration.
“Pele: Birth of a Legend” is out on DVD and Digital 17 August.