Diego Maradona gives director Asif Kapadia the hat trick of fine documentaries, with Senna (2010) about race driver Ayrton Senna and Amy (2015) about Amy Winehouse. Of the three, only football superstar Maradona has escaped an untimely death but he has certainly suffered a severe fall from grace. Like Kapadia’s previous documentaries, Diego Maradona is not just for his fans, or even fans of the great game. The story is of a flawed individual and the circumstances that made him what he was and shaped the life he lived.
Kapadia’s subjects are seen in two dimensions throughout the media, but his documentaries focus on the path that has led them to these perceptions. Diego Maradona was distilled from over 500 hours of never-before-seen footage from Maradona’s personal archive with the full support of the man himself. However, the film does not pull punches documenting his downfall. Much of the footage is the quality of home movies, most from the 70s and 80s, and it’s a lovely visit to times past.
The film is constructed in two halves – the first hour focusing on his talent and his rise to the top – and the earning of almost mythic status in the world game. In the second half, things start unravelling.
Maradona grew up in one of Argentina’s poorest areas and being one of five children, with four girls before him. By age 15 he was supporting the family through his football talent. He was driven by the desire to buy a home for his parents and make sure he never had to return to the Villa Florita – a shantytown on the outskirts of Buenos Aires.
Diego Maradona is seen as rebel, cheat, hero and God. His stint in Naples playing for SSC Napoli in the 1980s is said to be the story of his life. It certainly had the drama of high opera. He took the team of underdogs who were close to being relegated to Serie B and turned their success around.
Maradona had been plucked by Napoli following an unsuccessful run at Barcelona where he had been plagued with injury – unable to finish either of his two seasons there. His success in Napoli gave the impoverished city something to dream about and Maradona was indeed treated as a God. In his first season with the team, they reached eighth place in the league, third in the second year and by his third year, they had won the scudetto for the first time in their history. They went on that season to win the UEFA Cup.
He was young when he arrived in Napoli at the age of only 24 and the extreme treatment he received by fans and the city as a whole was overwhelming for anyone. He was feted in the streets, people would kiss him, hug him, and mob him. The crowds were intense and gathered everywhere he went. Fans clamoured for photographs with their hero – the photos were framed and hung above their beds, next to their pictures of Jesus. A nurse who took his blood set aside a vial and put it in the church of San Gennaro, patron saint of Napoli. Pictures were painted of him with the Virgin Mary. He was revered.
But there were scandals. He was named as the father of an illegitimate son whom he refused to acknowledge when asked by the press. He was also named as a friend of the Camorra – with links to the Giuliano family. His drug habit kept him in their pocket.
On the pitch, at the San Paolo Stadium, the 60,000-strong crowd were all chanting his name. He was an honorary Neapolitan. However, the tide turned on him during the 1990 World Cup, held in Italy. He had taken Napoli to the top, from a team that suffered the put downs of the northern teams – that they were from the sewers, didn’t wash and other racist taunts – and made them into a proud team of winners. But when he returned to play for Argentina in the World Cup and was pitted against Italy in the San Paolo Stadium, he tried to incite north and south Italian rivalries and asked the locals to barrack for Argentina. But their answer was “Maradona, Naples loves you, but Italy is our homeland”. The match was decided on penalties and by the time that Maradona kicked a goal the stadium was firmly against him. This was the real beginning of his end in Italy.
The pressures and the treatment by former fans sent him spiralling out of control. Where he had dabbled with drugs in the past, his cocaine habit began to consume him. The turning of the crowd reminded me of Adam Goodes’ treatment and was frightening in showing how quickly mob rule takes hold.
The film score, composed by Antonio Pinto, was particularly effective in portraying Maradona’s journey.
For those who remember the successes and the scores, the film will be a great revisiting of some of Argentina’s best games. For others who have come to the game later, or not at all, it’s an enlightening showing of these games.
Yes, the infamous “hand of God” that appeared in the World Cup final between England and Argentina when Maradona’s hand touched the ball before it hit the back of the goal. does receive airtime, and is admitted to be cheating by the man himself, but it is only a small part of a much larger story.