The highs and lows of Diego Maradona’s life in Naples provided fertile ground for a major new documentary, writes
THERE are famous soccer players and then there is Diego Maradona. As the engrossing new documentary from Oscar-winner Asif Kapadia (Senna, Amy) conveys, the stocky Argentinian contains multitudes. He’s been a genius on the pitch, an addict and a rogue off it. But the picture that ultimate emerges on screen is of a troubled enigma, mysterious even to himself.
“It’s tough at times,” says the director of the portrait his film Diego Maradona paints. “People are saying stuff they’ve never previously said about him. I’ve shown it to his ex-wife, to his children, to his biographer. His biographer was in tears. This film almost justifies his life’s work, which was to humanise Maradona.”
Kapadia is a master of finding a new perspective on a subject we may feel we already know inside out. Senna (2010) confronted us with the tortured melancholy that drove Formula 1 driver Ayrton Senna (ultimately to his death). Amy, which won the Oscar for Best Documentary in 2015, traced the self destructive urges and the asphyxiating celebrity that ultimately ripped apart Amy Winehouse.
In Diego Maradona, Kapadia tells the story through the prism of the star’s eight years at Napoli. This was where scrappy little Diego from the Buenos Aires slums both found and lost himself. He’d come to Italy in 1984 with a volatile name. Maradona had essentially left the mighty Barcelona in disgrace after starting a brawl during the Copa Del Rey final against Athletic Bilbao, with the king of Spain watching on.
Napoli had a reputation too. The club, like its city, was looked down upon by the blue bloods of Italian soccer in the wealthy north. It and Maradona were made for each other. And yet from the outset clouds gathered. Kapadia shows us Maradona’s first press conference. A journalist asks if the new star is aware of the degree to which the Camorra, the local mafia, had infiltrated the city.
The questions is shouted down by the club chairman. Maradona sits there mute. He doesn’t realise it yet — but soon he and the Camorra would be intimately acquainted.
“He doesn’t know where he is,” says Kapadia. “He doesn’t know anything about Naples. The reason he went there is that they were the only ones willing to pay. He was already seen as trouble. He needed Naples… they needed him. For a time it was the best place for him.”
But then it became the worst place. As the journalist had intimated, the mob indeed had its claws into many aspects of life in Naples. Kapadia chronicles Maradona’s friendship with a local gangland family and the cocaine addiction into which he spirals.
A blind eye is initially turned to his dalliances. That all changes when Italy play Argentina in the semi-final of the 1990 World Cup. On home turf, the Italians are hot favourites to win the competition. And, having disposed of Ireland in the quarter-finals, they march on to a fateful face-off against Maradona.
Incredibly, the game has been scheduled for Naples. Maradona tell Napoli supporters that the rest of Italy has always disdained them and urges that they support Argentina instead. The plea backfires and when Maradona is instrumental in knocking Italy out in a penalty shootout, his charmed existence comes to an end. He is ultimately banned for 18 months for failing a drugs test. It’s Match of the Day meets King Lear.
“He was never really a footballer after that. That penalty is the end of his career,” says Kapadia. “He’d go to a team and never see out the contract. Naples was the most important period of his life, no matter what happened before or after.”
Kapadia, working with his editor Chris King, comes at documentary film-making from a singular perspective.
He does not rely on the traditional talking heads or voiceover. Instead, he steps back and lets the footage tell its own story. It’s up to the viewer in many ways to make sense of what they are seeing. In the case of Maradona, this renders his decline and fall all the more searing to sit through.
Maradona was interviewed for the movie. We hear his voice, as thoughtfully, almost soulfully, he reflects on the out-of-wedlock son whose parentage he denied, and on the dissolute lifestyle that proved his undoing. Tracking the star down proved tricky, though Kapadia is needless to say glad he went to the effort.
“There are many interviews when he’s on TV and he’s out of it,” he says. “That’s not what I want. I want him to be in a very calm, peaceful place. That meant not following him around, not ever doing anything in public. “
The problem was that while Maradona was at the time based in Dubai his lawyer was in Argentina. And Kapadia, in London, didn’t speak Spanish. So he would have to pass through several intermediaries to reach Maradona.
FACE TO FACE
Still he finally got in a room with the footballer. “He was living in Dubai on this giant man-made palm tree. He sat on his sofa. There was a picture of Mother Teresa on one wall, his kids on another. Occasionally his girlfriend would come and listen and leave. I would say his answers and his ‘performance’ changed once she left the room.”
Kapadia is in his forties and in many ways grew up with Maradona. As a kid in London he remembers watching the 1982 and 1986 World Cups, the latter of which was essentially a one-man Maradona show. But he was still surprised when friends put it to him the the film was his most personal yet.
“I thought Amy was because of where she came from [the same north London where he grew up],” he says. “Then I started to reflect on it. At one point in the film Maradona says football is the one time he forgets about everything. I play non-league on a Tuesday night. I’m not Maradona. I’m completely useless, always falling over. But he’s right… it is the one time you forget everything. You don’t have to talk about work. It becomes about what you can do in that moment. Everything else goes away. ”