Diego Maradona review: Asif Kapadia brings us a touch of god

The team behind Amy and Senna brings their own sure hands to this compendious bird’s-eye documentary portrait of the Argentina and Napoli football legend.

Lou Thomas

from our forthcoming July 2019 issue

The titular Diego Maradona

The titular Diego Maradona

Diego Maradona is best known for his fraudulent first goal in the Argentina v England 1986 World Cup quarter-final in Mexico City. After the match, he admitted that his handball had been scored “a little with the head of Maradona and a little with the hand of God”. The ‘hand of God’ goal instantly became infamous – but the second goal Maradona scored that day, after he’d shimmied and feinted his way past a capable but spellbound England team as casually as if he was lacing up his boots in the changing room, was evidence of what his fellow Argentines prefer to remember: the breathtaking talent that made him the greatest footballer of his generation.

In Asif Kapadia’s documentary about the diminutive midfielder, both sides of Maradona’s mercurial personality are explored: the cheat and the genius. As with so many flawed stars of entertainment, sporting or otherwise, the feeling persists that the one can’t exist without the other. The film’s primary focus is the period between July 1984 and February 1991, beginning when a 23-year-old Maradona left FC Barcelona to join SSC Napoli and concluding with his ignominious departure from the Italian club. During this career-peak period, we witness his footballing triumphs (including Mexico 86) and ostensible familial happiness, but are also kept keenly aware of his tribulations. In hindsight, his marital infidelity and the fathering of an illegitimate son, combined with his manipulation by the Mob and his cocaine-fuelled downfall, may seem obvious cases of cause and effect, but the telling of Maradona’s story is thrilling despite this.

Kapadia, assisted by the scalpel-precise cuts of editor Chris King, introduces the narrative with urgency. There’s a deafening hullabaloo when Maradona arrives in Naples, where some 75,000 paying fans pack the San Paolo stadium just to see him do kick-ups. When a journalist at the press conference asks if the Camorra (local mafia) was involved with the signing, he is ejected by incandescent Napoli president Corrado Ferlaino. Interviewed later in the film, Ferlaino doesn’t explain how Naples, a city drowning in debt, was able to afford the world’s then most expensive footballer for (a now paltry) £6.9 million. (As it happened, politician Vincezo Scotti used banking connections to secure the club a loan.) It’s an auspicious and impactful opening that sets the persistent tone of wild excitement, high stakes and suggested deceit.

Over the next two hours and six and a half seasons, we meet Maradona the footballer and Maradona the playboy. He turns Napoli into a title-winning team for the first time in their history with an ability and drive that still astound, and he quickly becomes a hero in Naples, wildly feted everywhere he goes. Comparisons with Barcelona’s Lionel Messi, the pint-sized Argentine goal-scorer whom many consider to be the greatest footballer of the 21st century, are fair – except that Messi hasn’t been able to win a World Cup with Argentina. It’s also impossible to imagine Messi having such a retrospective documentary made about him in 30 years’ time: there simply isn’t the player access today. The game has changed immeasurably and players are kept on a tight leash by clubs and agents, while sponsorship money rolls in. Conversely, when players do misbehave, phone-recorded video footage is likely to make its way online via social media, one problem that Maradona didn’t have.

Diego Maradona (2019)

We hear and see how hated Napoli were by opposing teams in other Italian cities. Banners from Juventus and Verona fans brand them as “the unwashed”, “the shame of Italy” and “peasants”. Racism against Napoli is clear, and it’s a sad indictment of the beautiful game that the issue is still a hot topic in football, as in wider society. Napoli ‘ultra’ Gennaro Montuori, a friend of Maradona and a contributor here, would have been an ideal person to give a detailed fan’s perspective of this tension in the stands, but the matter is only touched on. Some of the copious on-pitch action could have made way.

The comedown begins in the film’s second half, when Maradona’s cocaine habit is discussed in earnest. He says: “I would come home high on drugs, and when I saw my daughters I would be afraid. I would lock myself in the bathroom.” Maradona explains how throughout his time in Naples, he would inaugurate businesses for the Camorra in exchange for them supplying him with cocaine. Earlier in the film, local boss Carmine Giuliano is shown in photographs with him, having evidently exploited the footballer’s fame since his arrival in the city.

Similarities exist between Diego Maradona and Kapadia’s two previous superstar documentary features, Senna (2010) and Amy (2015). Kapadia, King, producer James Gay-Rees and composer Antonio Pinto have collaborated on each part of this unofficial trilogy and each film has great breadth and no shortage of ambition. The earlier portraits of Brazilian Formula One driver Ayrton Senna and singer Amy Winehouse are definitive in part because of their wide array of personal and public visual archive sources and fresh, extensive offscreen audio interviews with all the key people who knew them.

The same approach is used here. Maradona’s ex-wife Claudia Villafañe, and Cristiana Sinagra, mother of his illegitimate son, give proceedings mild prurient curiosity and occasional moments of warmth; trainer Fernando Signorini and Maradona’s biographer Daniel Arcucci fill us in on football and partying; and historian John Foot provides sociopolitical context. This time round, though, Kapadia has an added trump card: the subject is living and has allowed himself to be interviewed – and had a 500-hour treasure chest of archive footage waiting to be plundered. Who can resist scenes of Maradona teaching his toddler daughter to swear into a microphone at Milan and Juve fans, or his dad grilling slabs of meat for the Argentina World Cup squad?

Diego Maradona (2019)

While Kapadia’s film is a fine, fascinating doc and essential viewing for football fans, it’s perhaps slightly hindered by the relative paucity of genuinely surprising input among the wealth of material from its charismatic subject and other contributors. Yes, Maradona is open about his drug use and speaks movingly about his poverty-stricken upbringing in a shack in the slums of Buenos Aires. But we could have heard more on the 1986 England and Argentina rivalry coming so soon after the Falklands War, and the social conditions of destitute Naples while he lived there. Although, be careful what you wish for: Emir Kusturica’s Maradona by Kusturica (2008) was somewhat blighted both by its director giving himself such a unsolicited share of the spotlight and by the footballer’s political rants, which veered towards conspiracy theory.

One of the strengths of Kapadia’s film is how it impresses on viewers the extraordinary pressures Maradona faced. From the age of 15, he supported his family, including seven siblings, with the proceeds of his talent, and as his career progressed he also shouldered the hopes of a club, a nation and, to some extent, the wishes of the Cammorra. The material assembled elicits a degree of sympathy for the player and the man, without ever becoming hagiographic. He has little time to evade the spotlight, and dealing with the incessant intrusion and unyielding expectation appears tiresome and relentless at the very least. The parallels between the lack of privacy afforded, say, Hollywood stardom and sporting success are clear, yet for the years his career was at its zenith, Maradona had it all and didn’t shirk his manifold professional responsibilities, even as he lapsed in areas of his home life. We feel that Kapadia wants him to win, and we do too.

The sympathy only goes so far, though. For the chief aim of this intimate and thorough access-all-areas study of a sporting superstar is surely for its audience to live the Diego dream vicariously, without having to devote their lives to footballing excellence or open any restaurants for the Mob. Kapadia and his team achieve this in spades, with an adrenalised and substantial film. No one stays at the top for ever, but what a life it looks like when you’re inhaling that rarefied air.


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