Asif Kapadia’s Maradona opens on a boxy little fiat screeching through the ragged streets of Naples, July 1984. Interspersed with this journey, we see grainy footage of a boy of 10, maybe 11, doing juggling tricks with a soccer ball in Villa Fiorito, a shantytown on the southern outskirts of Buenos Aires.
The ball is already an extension of him, floating from his foot to his forehead and back again as if on an invisible string. Then a skinny 15-year-old, his ragged curls looking heavier than the rest of him, screaming past players twice his size in the Argentinian Primera Division, jumping over flailing legs and skipping past stamping feet. Then we see the superstar, the big transfer to Barcelona in 1983. We see him out, dancing, mugging for the camera, his ankle quite horrifically broken by Andoni Goikoetxea (or the Butcher of Bilbao, as he was known), and his revenge months later when he’d returned from injury, leading to an all-out brawl, and he is again without a club.
Maradona is the third in what the director calls a “trilogy about child geniuses and fame”. Kapadia explores with Diego Maradona the same territory as he did with Amy Winehouse and Ayrton Senna; that fork in the road where unimaginable notoriety splits the self in two. Many of the interview subjects say there was Diego, the affectionate, insecure kid from the slums; and there was Maradona, the coked-up, egomaniacal genius. “For Diego, I would go to the end of the world … But with Maradona, I wouldn’t take a step,” his personal trainer surmises. We see Diego himself in various TV interviews from the peak of his fame, speaking airily of Maradona as though it’s someone else.
So to Naples, we come careening to the film’s present — the five blazing vertiginous years that Maradona was the greatest player in the world, maybe ever — at the gates of the Stadio San Paolo. After the chaos of his time in Barcelona, he was unable to easily find another employer, ending up at a nothing club in one of the poorest cities in Europe. Napoli fans were greeted with vicious classicist slurs where ever they went. “Wash yourselves” and “greetings cholera sufferers” read the opposing fans banners. “Wash them in fire,” they screamed.
Maradona was born in one of the poorest parts of Argentina, and while in Spain, had been racially taunted for his Native American heritage. From this bond, Naples became for him the place that (to steal a line from my colleague Guy Rundle) “when you have to go there, they have to take you in“. Napoli had never reached the top of the Italian League, let alone stayed there long enough to win a title. While Maradona was there, they won two titles, a European Cup and an Italian Cup. “He chose us, he saved us,” is how one fan remembered it.
He inevitably becomes something more than a sporting star to his adopted city. He becomes a religious figure, commemorated in shrines and messianic paintings. Grainy video footage from the time shows him mobbed everywhere, in cars, at press conferences, in bowling alleys. Maradona, on the field, could slalom his way past five, six massed defenders, his bull terrier stature and dizzying close control making him nigh-impossible to strip of possession or knock over. Everywhere else he is walled in on all sides by masses of fans, journalists blocking doorways, people clamoring, just wanting to touch him. On the field “life goes away. Everything goes away.” Elsewhere, his body ceases to be his.
Word count forces me to skim over his crowning achievement, the 1986 World Cup — which Argentina, perched on Maradona’s shoulders, won. In the space of four minutes against England, Maradona sums himself up with two of the most famous goals in history. The brazen cheating of the “hand of God” and the sublime skill of the goal of the century (if you’re not familiar, please check it out). After this tournament, Maradona becomes immortal.
Behind the scenes, he becomes increasingly dependent on cocaine; Maradona — like Paul Gascoigne, George Best, Ben Cousins, take your pick — sought a corresponding high off the field, that same sense of invincibility, and found it in drugs and women. This put him in debt of the Camorra crime syndicate which ran, and runs, the city of Naples, and thus, his fate was sealed.
To the mafiosos who exploited him, to the owners of the club, he is ultimately meat — a commodity that is worth a lot, until it’s worth nothing. As his lifestyle starts to take its toll and his back starts to give him trouble, we see doctors give him a series of unspecified but agonising-looking injections that allow him to play. “And if he fell apart,” a teammate ruefully notes, “well, fuck him”.
During the 1990 World Cup, held in Italy, he provocatively but not inaccurately suggested that Naples fans, given how they were treated, should cheer for Argentina. This leads to the souring of his relationship with the country, the club. His “friends” turn on him, and his indulgences with coke and sex workers, open secrets for years, suddenly attract the interest of the police. He gets off with a fine, but leaves in disgrace.
The film perhaps overstates the extent to which the actual people of Naples abandoned him — to this day, there are still literal shrines to him on the streets — but the point stands. Though he would produce more magic in the remainder of his career, by the impossible standards he had set, Maradona was a has-been at 32. After football, his weight ballooned, his health suffered, the cocaine use worsened. Considering everything, he’s lucky to still be alive.
The skill isn’t the only reason that Maradona was a one-off, although it’s a big part of it. In some ways, his celebrity is matched by modern superstars like David Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo, but Beckham, with his studied, media-trained wholesomeness and Ronaldo with his Patrick Bateman-like drive towards physical and statistical perfection are not what Maradona was, and is. Maradona was messy, ragged, political, human.
Even more than the cruelty of being a once deity and commodity, is the cruelty of genius, particularly sporting genius, a concentrated brilliance that one can never hope to recapture. The film shows us Maradona as he is now just once, towards the end of the film. He’s nearing 60, still big but definitely looking healthier than he had 15 years prior, playing a mixed kick-about with some people several decades his junior, and for a second, there he is — he feints to shoot, the defender turns their back, he knocks into a little space and thumps the ball into the bottom corner of the net and cocks his fist in that familiar way. And then he winces at the exertion, the hand moves to his lower back, and the magic subsides.