Diego Maradona Review
Like the worlds of music and boxing, football remains the great equaliser (ahem) for the working classes; at least for those with the talent and mental fortitude to make it through the brutal culling system on their way towards the top of the game. Diego Maradona is perhaps the perfect example of that, surviving the shanty towns of Villa Fiorito on the outskirts of the Argentine capital, to evolve into arguably the best professional football player to ever kick a ball. But as we learn in Asif Kapadia’s new documentary, it also meant becoming the breadwinner for his family from the age of 15, a burden that weighed heavily on him throughout his career.
According to Kapadia, Diego Maradona is the last in his trilogy focussing on ‘tragi-heroes’, following on from his acclaimed Senna documentary and somewhat exploitative follow-up, Amy. And there could be no-one more fascinating than a global superstar who once dominated the world’s most popular game, only to suffer a dishonourable fall from grace while still at its summit. But as with his previous two releases, Kapadia’s film isn’t simply about the subject himself, but of the way fame can destroy from within.
Maradona’s former fitness coach, Fernando Signorini, is heard saying there are two sides to the man: Diego – the humble, family boy from Buenos Aires, and Maradona, the egotistical mask he created to cope with the pressures of fame. He later goes on to say that while Diego wants nothing to do with Maradona, he has little say in the way in which he is dragged around by his alter-ego. Which, like some parts of Kapadia’s film, sounds like a soft excuse for his excesses, but you can also imagine it’s a philosophy employed by countless celebrities around the world.
Kapadia starts with a very brief overview of Maradona’s career at Barcelona, where he was on the cusp of superstardom, but his explosive nature on and off the field saw him become too much of a liability for the Catalan giants (we also see a clip of his brutal contribution to the infamous brawl between Barca and Athletic Bilbao in 1984 Copa del Rey final). The only club willing to take a risk on the temperamental genius were Napoli – a team more used to life near the bottom of the Italian league and a huge step down for the player. Think Lionel Messi going to play for Southampton and you've got it. It’s a transfer that no world class footballer today would ever consider.
On his plane journey towards his unveiling at Napoli’s San Paolo Stadium, Maradona tells reporters he hopes for peace and quiet at his new club. Upon his arrival, it's pure bedlam with 75,000 adoring fans filling the ground, and as he ascended to became a god-like figure in Naples, bringing unprecedented success to the club, the insanity surrounding him only increased. The opening question put to him at his first press conference pointedly asks of his knowledge about Napoli’s links to the local mafia syndicate, the Camorra (the journalist is swiftly removed by then club president Corrado Ferlaino). Little did he know then the central role they would play in his time living in the city.
Given access to over 500 hours of previously unseen VHS-quality footage, most of which was provided by Maradona himself, Kapadia pieces together his usual slick collage of images to focus on the peak years of the player’s career, from 1984 through to 1990. The womanising, drug taking, cheating and, of course, the goals and outrageous skill, saw the intensity of life in Naples reach fever pitch shortly before becoming the best player on the planet at the 1986 World Cup. Maradona is heard recalling parts of his own story, along with respected Italian football journalists and close personal friends and family.
It’s as if by chance Maradona found a kindred spirit in Naples, a southern city looked down upon by the wealthier northern powerhouses of Milan and Turin. For the locals he became a symbol of their defiance, a man whose talent was unequaled in the country (and the world) and with a fierce competitive streak to match. Those who have said football and politics never mix, have clearly never been watching closely enough and they certainly overlooked Maradona. Kapadia picks his way through the sociopolitical connotations attached to the 1986 World Cup quarter final against England, the fallout to his complicated involvement in the 1990 World Cup semi-final versus Italy, and how he became a legend in his own country and eventually vilified in his adopted home.
Maradona’s and Napoli’s success were intertwined, as was his relationship with the Giuliano family, leaders of the Camorra, who supplied him with as much drugs and prostitutes as he desired. His sleazy addictions were an open secret out on the Neapolitan streets and they would also eventually become his downfall. And yet this still feels more celebratory compared to Kapadia’s previous films, with some darker elements of Maradona’s life largely glossed over. Once a series of scandals end his time in Italy, the ensuing years are wrapped up rather abruptly, and the many bizarre post-career antics given no mention. That may be because the player provided so much of the source material Kapadia had to play with, and it’s a trade-off that means a number of avenues are left unexplored and many questions remain unanswered.
Moments where he is seen looking dazed while being herded through a throng of journalists and club officials offer a brief glimpse of the fragility of living a life under such a bright spotlight. It should also be remembered that at the time, Maradona was the Michael Jackson of football; there were no equals to his fame (he was levels above the likes of Platini and Socrates and scrutinised accordingly). The game was a wildly different beast back then, with no worldwide TV or online audience able to watch his every move à la Messi and Ronaldo today. He was elevated onto a pedestal higher than any other, and while he was able to handle the pressure on the field to drag his club side and national team to glory, his personal life descended into dark pit of depravity.
"When you're on the pitch, life goes away. Everything goes away" - words spoken by Maradona that have been echoed by endless footballers, sports people and entertainers over the years. While playing the game he was a short, 5' 5" barrel-chested upstart with no physical advantages who revelled in playing the underdog and used it to fuel his breathtaking talent. He'll forever remain an enigma, which is perhaps another reason why there is a limit to what Kapadia's film can reveal.
Diego Maradona opens in UK cinemas on June 14.