Cristiano Ronaldo has dominated world football for just over a decade now.
British Filmmaker Asif Kapadia’s latest documentary brilliantly showcases troubled genius Diego Maradona, whose talents dragged him from poverty to an almost god-like status in Argentina and among the football community worldwide.
Academy Award-winning director Kapadia’s previous documentaries, which explored the lives of Brazilian racing driver Ayrton Senna and British singer-songwriter Amy Winehouse, utilised similar themes, and the pathos of a rise and fall is once again his goal with his latest documentary.
The film features previously unseen footage to trace the story of a man who carried insecurity throughout his football career. Maradona only felt truly free on the football pitch, once famously saying, “When you’re on the pitch life goes away. Everything goes away”.
Diego Maradona was born into poverty in Villa Fiorito, a province of Buenos Aires, as one of six siblings. This background shaped much of Maradona’s character as he looked to utilise his football talent to provide for his family.
Maradona made his Argentina national team debut at the age of 16 years and four months when coach Luis Menotti sent him on from the bench in a friendly against Hungary on 27 February 1977. Europe soon came calling and Barcelona paid a world-record fee of $5 million to Boca Juniors in 1982.
Kapadia touches on the struggles Maradona experienced in Barcelona with both injury and expectation, with his time there eventually ending in controversy after he was involved in one of the most notorious football brawls in history at the end of the Copa del Rey final in 1984 against Athletic Bilbao.
Maradona’s next move proved the most pivotal in his career, both professionally and personally. Napoli came for him when most were unwilling to touch the maverick talent, allowing him to restart his career. Napoli proved to be the perfect melting pot for Maradona’s skills and leadership to truly flourish, and he inspired a city and team to two Italian titles, a Coppa Italia and a UEFA Cup.
Kapadia explores the genius that Maradona brought to Napoli. Using archival footage the viewer is given an insight into a city that made Maradona a god. Maradona’s on-pitch mastery covered over many of the off-field issues he found himself involved in, including the addictive drug cocaine.
Through this period in Naples Maradona also led Argentina to World Cup success in 1986 and produced two of the most iconic World Cup moments against England in the quarter-finals four years after the Falklands War. The first was the infamous ‘hand of god’, Maradona’s punching of the ball into the back of the net to score, apparently completely unnoticed by the officials. The second a piece of wizardry came as he glided past English defenders from the halfway line to slot the ball into the goal after rounding English goalkeeper Peter Shilton.
These two moments summarise a man who, as described by ex-wife Claudia Villafane, lived through two faces. ‘Diego’ is the tender, vulnerable guy she fell in love with; ‘Maradona’ is the bulletproof sporting hero he needed to invent to keep his sanity, performing in front of crowds of 60,000 each week and dealing with a rabid press.
Kapadia’s film perfectly encapsulates the anti-establishment vibes Maradona represented for the city of Naples and its long-running political feud with the northerners of Milan and Juventus, who saw the southerners as “unwashed peasants”.
However, this bond sadly eroded at the infamous 1990 World Cup semi=final, which saw Italy and Argentina face off in Naples. It symbolised the start of the end of Maradona at Napoli.
Maradona’s alleged ties with the Camorra as well as the denial of a son he fathered exposed a man who was no longer able to use football as a blanket as his closest allies deserted him.
The current-day comparisons between Lionel Messi and Maradona and the arguments over who is the greatest player seem to be an almost weekly debate between football pundits. This film by Kapadia artfully shuts down those arguments: Maradona may not have had the longevity of a Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo and may have lacked the goal-scoring feats of Pele, but he inspired a city and single-handedly took Napoli to heights never experienced before.
Throughout his career, both with Napoli and Argentina, he was able to block out any outside noise and inspire the players around him, who followed him unabatedly.
Maradona was always an outlaw and masterful technician. He is a man and footballer who stands alone. He’s a giant of a lost world that was neither better nor worse but remains, even if peering back down that grainy, fond lens, gloriously ragged and gloriously undimmed.