Football is a game of two halves (now with 10% extra free thanks to VAR), and the career of Diego Maradona is one remembered largely due to two goals (and some nose cocaines). With the third of his trio of documentaries about famous people, director Asif Kapadia portrays a man of two personas.
Looking mainly at his time in Napoli (during which essentially all the things we know of Maradona happened), the opening credits show his motorcade to Napoli’s Stadio San Paolo intertwined with clips summarising the first eight years of his career through Argentinos Juniors, Boca Juniors and Barcelona, in all its knee-to-the-head glory. There’s probably a story to be made of these years as well, but this is not the time.
We are then introduced to the first persona of Diego: the fifth child of a poor family in Buenos Aires, living in a one room shack. At 15, he signs a contract with Argentinos Juniors and has a one-bedroom apartment bought for him by the club. His family move in and he becomes the main bread-winner for a family of seven as its youngest member. What then happened to the young player in Argentina and then Spain is ignored. Instead, we are taken to a 23-year-old being mobbed as he enters Napoli’s stadium to dozens of thousands of baying supporters waiting to see the world’s most expensive player kick a ball.
He seems a fairly meek man, dealing with difficult questions with a little awkwardness. His introduction to Italian football is a difficult one: Naples seen as the sewer of Italy and hated by the teams from the north, it takes a while for the goals and the wins to come. But after a mid-table finish, the years soon bring with them success on the pitch – including that World Cup win in Mexico – but see the birth of Maradona.
His connections to the Camorra see a party lifestyle with late nights of cocaine and women. Affairs and an illegitimate son come before the birth of his daughters, living half of his life as a celebrity – if not god – and the other half training to burn ready for Sunday. The on the field success continues for a while, but it clearly takes its toll on his body, growing bigger as the years pass. With Napoli already a city and club disliked by fellow Italians, Maradona as its poster-boy is likewise. Italia ’90 comes and brings a semi-final held at the Stadio San Paolo: Naples’ nation plays its god. He scores his penalty in the shoot-out, helping to send the hosts out, in, for him, a damned if you do, damned if you don’t move.
Overnight, all support for him disappears. The infamous booing of the Argentina national anthem in the final prompting cries of “sons of bitches” from the captain. The final lost, he has little to go back to Naples for. His nose cocaines abuse and womanising are exposed, coming with an unprecedented ban. His time in Italy, and essentially his career now over.
As a British person, I obviously despise all other nations and races (especially the Argies), and as such my opinions of Maradona are pre-determined by an act which occurred when I was 2-years-old: the fat, cheating cocaine addict. But Kapadia has some sympathy with one-of-two-of-the-best-Argentine-footballers of all time.
While not focusing on it, he makes the point that he was a young man put under a lot of pressure to support his family financially. Then, for a city infamous for its poverty at the time, he is the world’s most expensive player with the whole population depending on him to give them something to live for on Sunday. Coming close to being a living god, he delivers the promise of footballing success, but as such is hounded everywhere he goes and is a play thing for the mob. These demands see the more timid Diego create the Maradona character as a coping strategy. A clip of Pele stating he lacks the maturity to be the best player in the world is perhaps telling. But, with Pele playing in a different era, Maradona had the problems now seen in Messi’s tax scandal or Ronaldo’s rape accusation that come with the tag of best player in the world. Lest we forget that first player to win PFA Player of the Year in the Premier League era was a known alcoholic. Maradona, therefore, is not too different from any other modern great in coming with countless problems.
Football, however, is a lover of talking points and controversy (hence why VAR will both create new talking points but remove moments of beauty). And making a documentary to paint a picture of a player most people have already determined their opinions of is a challenge. Kapadia creates a portrait of a young man put under immense pressure who created a second persona to cope with it.
But, you do feel there could be some more to the storytelling to further this. His links to the Camorra are largely looked at in terms of cocaine supplies and using him as a celebrity endorsement. The extent of their grip on him is not fully explored to see if this was a genuine prison for him, or something he could have fled at any moment. The nature of his signing as well is left largely untold. Here is the most expensive deal ever to happen in football to a team with few prospects in a city with a poor economy. Who financed the deal would also tell more of the exact nature of his relationship with the city as a whole, not just as its best player.
This is perhaps a fault of Kapadia’s style: as a pure archive footage documentary, with voiceover interviews from those involved, the opportunity for analysis isn’t particularly afforded. It is more show and tell. With a running length of 90 minutes plus extra time, we are largely treated to Match of the Day highlights, only with less Gary Lineker. This can, even as a beautiful game (Villa fan) follower myself, be a little draining in terms of entertainment value.
But the barrage creates an intensity that feels appropriate to the six years the film largely covers. A whirlwind period of success with added cocaine, you get a sense of the passion, intensity and lastly hatred. As such, we gain a sympathy for him as a person, a sense of the pressures he was under, but only part of the story. More sympathy might be gained if learning more about the younger Diego; though less sympathy may be afforded if we didn’t have a three decade gap in the story of his relationship with his illegitimate son. Archive footage always brings with it selectivity.
But what the footage does show is a player who could waltz passed defences at a time when defenders could slide tackle with the subtlety of a tank and how perhaps England also had some hands to play in that quarter final. He led teams with limited talent to major success, and so his tag as a true great cannot be denied.
So, does Kapadia succeed in his attempts to shed new light on a pre-determined figure? Well, to some extent. It is difficult to persuade any football fan as to their feelings, and Kapadia does go some way to creating some sympathy for the much vilified footballer. The footage available both on and off the pitch is used to good effect, as well as interviews with the man himself overlaying it. But with documentary focusing on a period rather than a lifetime, you do feel that there is more story left to tell.