When someone mentions the greatest footballer of all time, three names most likely come to mind. The oldest is Brazilian legend Pele. The newest would probably be Barcelona’s Argentine master Lionel Messi. In the middle, arguably, could be Argentina’s controversial and flamboyant striker Diego Maradona.
Just the name conjures up a whole wealth of iconic cultural images for anyone born before or around the early 1980s; lifting the World Cup trophy in Mexico ’86, the same tournament as the infamous ‘Hand of God’ goal against England. But how much do we stop and consider the man behind the images himself? Maradona spent years in the tabloids, particularly for a powerful drug addiction which all but destroyed his playing career after his glory days, but do we know the man behind the myth? Asif Kapadia attempts to explore this question in his documentary, much anticipated after his striking debut Senna and the searing, emotional heights of Amy. There is a reason he doesn’t call his film simply Maradona, as we all know him. This is as much, if not more, about Diego too.
This question provides the lynchpin of a film which never hits the potent, powerful and affecting heights of Kapadia’s tragic previous two examinations, but nevertheless shines a light on a fascinating man at a fascinating point of sporting history. Diego Maradona avoids a broad canvas portrait of the man’s entire life story in favour of zeroing in on perhaps the central chapter of his career and life, the one that defined who he was and who he would be: his life in Italy.
Yes, the film touches on the difficulty of growing up in the slums of Buenos Aires in the 60s, part of a large brood led by a patriarch who worked his fingers to the bone. Sure, Kapadia touches on Maradona’s ascension through youth ranks all the way to joining Barcelona in the early 80s. The focus, however, is squarely on Napoli, and the life he creates for himself in Naples. Joining the club was a gamble for Maradona; when he joined they were low down in Serie A and to many it could have seemed a backward step for a player already being venerated as a special talent, but Maradona – in the tradition of team-making players such as Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo – morphs the entire club and its success around his skill and his persona. Maradona, in the mid-80s, entirely changes the fortunes of the Neapolitan corner of Italy, turning them from paupers into kingmakers in short order.
As with most of Kapadia’s work, his subject’s talent isn’t the point of the story he’s telling. Diego Maradona is suffused with football, both on the pitch and around it; footage from Serie A matches or World Cup tournaments, with interviews around the time in the dressing room or press conferences; home video footage and so on, all building up a picture of Diego the man and Maradona the legend, while establishing the social and cultural aspects that build him into a god and send him crashing down as a devil, certainly in the eyes of Italy and the Neapolitan faithful who deify Maradona. Not just for football either; Kapadia presents a Naples in the 80s corrupted by the Camorra, the shadowy organised crime group who run the city, and a people looking for an icon, a saviour, as they face the echo of decades of social, cultural and economic stagnation.
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Kapadia is frequently interested in his subjects as fallen idols – geniuses whose talent was destroyed in a fugue of tragic life choices and dealings of fate. Ayrton Senna, one of the greatest Formula 1 drivers who ever lived, died on his field of endeavour. Amy Winehouse, who could have ended up one of the world’s most successful modern musical talents, ended up in an early grave thanks to excesses of vice and toxic family and friends. Maradona, interestingly, often feels like his own worst enemy, and this is where Kapadia’s third film lacks the dramatic punch of his previous pictures. Diego is harder to like, even if he remains with us having battled addictions left right and centre. Maradona ends up believing his own hype for a while and as he puts country before adopted nation, rejects children born out of wedlock with mistresses, and leans heavier into the temptations presented by the darker side of Naples, you feel the ignominy of his career and personal life as the 90s dawned could have been avoided had he made better life choices.
There is also a feeling Maradona is holding back throughout this piece, that Kapadia can’t quite reach into him in the searing fashion he discovered Amy or Ayrton’s legacies. The surrounding tissue of Maradona’s experience – his life in Italy, the decaying cultural fabric of Neapolitan life and the importance of footballing success as a totem of their own pride – feel more interesting than Diego himself, and despite all of Kapadia’s skill as a documentarian who is never intrusive, and lets the footage and witnesses present the picture for themselves, this fact is hard to escape when embracing Diego Maradona. The man leaves you at a greater remove than you might expect, and come the end, come echoes of his personal redemption, he ends up a harder icon to like or even truly understand. Maybe we weren’t supposed to.
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Alongside the documentary as presented, this Blu-ray release from Spirit Entertainment has strength in depth (pun intended) when it comes to additional material:
- Feature Audio Commentary with Asif Kapadia
- Making of (60mins)
- Goal Q&A with Asif Kapadia and Chris King (30 mins)
- Bonus Scenes: (39mins total):
- – Boca Juniors Training 1981
- – Ankle Injury 1983
- – Diego’s recovery 1983
- – Anonymous in America 1984
- – Medical & Napoli Contract signing 1984
- – First Training Session in Naples 1984
- – Charity Match 1984
- – Winter Training in Naples 1984
- – Home Videos Buenos Aires 1984
- – Home Videos CUBA 1987
- – End of Season Holiday 1988
- – Napoli Team Carnival Party 1988
- – Acupuncture 1990
- – Maradona’s New Ferrari 1990
- – Maradona Training 2017
For anyone who grew up watching Maradona or football in the 80s and 90s, Diego Maradona will bring back a flood of memories from a bygone age, one in which media, celebrity and fandom brewed together in the sport to create the conditions needed for the man Diego to become the myth Maradona. Asif Kapadia has made more affecting portraits of fallen idols but this can hold its head up high as a forensic encapsulation of the key chapter of a remarkable life.