“There are no words,” says Kely Nascimento-DeLuca, the eldest daughter of Pelé, when I ask about her journey from women’s football novice to documentary maker on the subject. “I’ve always been very into football. I love football. It’s like Christmas, every game in Brazil. It’s hard to explain the feeling, the electricity during a game.”
Sitting in a cafe in downtown Manhattan, Nascimento-DeLuca is buzzing. Following this interview she will head off to celebrate with her co-director Justin Noto, having just dropped off the footage for Warriors of a Beautiful Game, their feature-length documentary on women’s football, at Rock Paper Scissors, the editors of the acclaimed Netflix documentary Icarus among many other productions.
It has been a long and gruelling journey, one that, in January, had Nascimento-DeLuca seriously wondering if she would even finish the film given the money had run dry and she and Noto were running out of options. “But it’s a movie about women’s football” became the all-too-familiar caveat to the praise they would initially receive for the project.
“You know what gets me about it?” says an exasperated Nascimento-DeLuca. “Here in the US, in terms of branding and marketing, we’re pretty good. I would sit in these rooms and I would be like: ‘Dude, we sold people a pet rock. Hundreds of thousands of people bought it, but you cannot fathom a cheeky slogan you could make up to get people to go and watch this movie, which is really not just about sport but is about passion?’ It’s people’s stories. It’s women’s stories – which is problematic because people aren’t used to that. My favourite stories in the world are about women, but they are men’s stories about women.”
There are some huge names in the film. US women’s national team players past and present such as Alex Morgan and Abby Wambach, tennis and equality hero Billie Jean King, England’s Nikita Parris, as well as the Brazil superstars Marta, Formiga and Neymar are all interviewed. But at thedocumentary’s heart, is the story of the Brazilian Lais Araujo, now 24, who was spotted in a favela eight years ago by Wilson Egidio, Nascimento-DeLuca’s brother-in-law and coach of Manhattan Soccer Club, a youth side based in New York.
“There’s this girl who I just saw, Kely, we have to try and get her here,” said Egidio in a text to Nascimento-DeLuca on his return to the city. “There’s no future for her there, she was playing with all the boys, she’s super skinny, she’s 16, she was playing with no shoes on and she’s phenomenal.”
Nascimento-DeLuca wanted to help but was also hesitant given she worked as a creative director and, her father aside, had no connection with football. But then while working on a series of T-shirts for a fledgling brand, which included tops with images of Pelé on them, she had an idea. “Listen, I want to shoot this on a girl player,” she pitched to the CEO of the company. “I think we need to change the narrative a little and I know the girl.”
It marked the beginnings of a relationship in which Nascimento-DeLuca would grow as much as Araujo. “I have four kids and a job and so our conversations were very much on the side,” says Nascimento‑DeLuca of the early period of their contact after the t-shirt shoot. “She would send me a WhatsApp message excited because she had heard that in a month a scout from the national team would be coming to her town and she was going to work extra hard. In the two years we chatted it happened several times and they never came, ever. Those things started to lodge themselves in the back of my head.”
Then, however, Araujo’s life began to change. She got to the US, invested in a good camera phone and with the help of friends made a showreel. It worked – she was soon in the orbit of the University of Florida, having impressed at junior college level, and after impressing for them she caught the eye of those in charge of selecting players for Brazil’s under-20s team. By 2016, she was her country’s No 10 at the U20s World Cup in Papua New Guinea, playing alongside four players who are now senior Brazil internationals.
As Nascimento-DeLuca followed Araujo’s journey, her eyes were opened to the struggles of women footballers. “I thought that this was a) an amazing story and b) truly fucked up. That this girl comes from a country that literally breeds talent and had to go through this journey to get to our U20 national team.”
That led to Nascimento-DeLuca researching women’s football. “I was really shocked by so many things. I knew nothing,” she says. “I wasn’t necessarily shocked at the systemic sexism, because I’m South American, and a woman, and alive. But I was shocked at some of the statements that were being made in 2015 by those in charge of promoting the team and sport in Brazil.”
For someone who has grown up with a global superstar as a father, Nascimento-DeLuca’s social consciousness is striking. “I’ve had a very profoundly unique experience being the daughter of Pelé in a country that is as systemically racist as Brazil. I was always very aware that everywhere we went nobody looked like me, and definitely not my father.
“It was interesting because my father is the type of person who treats everyone that works for him like family. I don’t mean altruistically, I mean that he doesn’t know how to have staff. That sounds horrible, I don’t mean to sound uppity, he just doesn’t make that distinction. If you’re standing there and I’m eating? Sit down. It’s because he doesn’t know how to be wealthy.
“You become very aware that if it wasn’t for one magical bit of genius, your life could be completely different because of the way you look. That’s huge. There were many painful things about moving to the US at that time. There was no FaceTime. It was like moving to Mars. But they put us in the United Nations school, so we weren’t aliens. And they moved us to a city where no one gave a fuck. Like truly. He was the least famous person here by a mile.”
That has meant Nascimento-DeLuca never attempting to capitalise on her connection, partly because in the arts it wouldn’t have helped much anyway. But it certainly helped as she sought to make her documentary. It took a year to raise the money required for Warriors of a Beautiful Game to become a reality, with the first investor being Stéphane Mbia, the former Cameroon international who Nascimento-DeLuca met at a Paris Saint-Germain game.
“If there is any time when using his name is justified and should be encouraged I think it is to do something like this. For many reasons,” she says. “His [Pelé’s] career – I mean, he was a genius – and his longevity is a great juxtaposition to any woman’s, like Marta’s.
“It’s really interesting to see that it’s all the same emotions, it’s all the same strings it pulls on. And yet one has been allowed to thrive and been allowed to reach incredible parts of society and culture and the other one hasn’t to nearly the same extent.”
For Araujo, it has not been easy. She graduated in 2018 and went to Norway, then to Adelaide. Now she is back in Brazil having fallen off the radar after she prioritised her diploma over the NWSL draft and staying in the pool for the under-20s team. For Nascimento-DeLuca, the hope is that she has done her story justice.
“I feel a lot of pressure to make the women in the film proud and to tell the story that they want told. I want it to be a love letter to the sport that makes other people fall in love with it.”
And perhaps a rather obvious question – has Pelé seen the documentary? “He’s seen the teaser. He said it’s good,” she says with a laugh. “But he’s always like: ‘I’ll reserve my judgment, let’s see the whole thing first’.”