Diego and Jimmy: trailing the self-destruction and tragic comedy of an extraordinary, wild genius

Asif Kapadia’s documentary has been rightly acclaimed but author Jimmy Burns took on the same complex subject in the mid-90s, with similar results.

Image: Peter Robinson

CHAOS, VIOLENCE AND DESTRUCTION led Jimmy Burns to eventually produce the definitive work on Diego Armando Maradona.   

While working at the Financial Times in 1982, the Spanish-born, English-raised journalist was posted to Argentina and arrived just prior to the start of the Falklands War. The conflict was already underway when one evening, over a thousand miles north, at River Plate’s El Monumental stadium in Buenos Aires, Burns saw Maradona for the first time in a friendly against the Soviets. But, it was a buried memory. There were more important things. 

Later, the three-month war was the subject of Burns’ celebrated first book, The Land That Lost Its Heroes, and his second was a collection of diaries he kept while traveling extensively throughout South America. But when his publishers, Bloomsbury, sat him down to discuss ideas for his third offering, they had a curious suggestion.      

“They were keen on me doing another Argentina-related book”, Burns says. 

“And they told me there had never been an objective, independent, unauthorised biography of Maradona. Because I’d lived in Argentina and knew the country well, they thought it was a good idea to try my hand at it. And they thought something about him had a lot going for it: sex, drugs, rock n’n roll…and football. By process of osmosis, I did find investigating his life and following his career quite a challenging and destructive experience. It was a difficult time in my personal and professional life, I think, because I was up against this extraordinary, wild genius. And the more I got in to the story, the more I seemed to be dragged in to this crazy world of his. There was the sheer brilliance of his natural talents but an extraordinary story of self-destruction and a kind of tragic comedy, really.”

It extended over more than a year and a half and straddled various countries and continents. But I decided I had to begin by going back to his roots so I made a point of visiting Villa Fiorito and spending some time understanding the culture of someone who’s born into an Argentine shanty town. I realised how much you couldn’t even begin to understand somebody like Diego Maradona without beginning there. The more I went in to the story, I realised you had to look at this extraordinary person’s ability to break out of the poverty in which he was born and simply through his will and desire to become the best player in the world one day, he did.”

The book – Hand of God – was released in 1996, when a veteran Maradona was still playing, having returned to Boca Juniors the previous year.

diego-maradonna Source: BULLER LOUISA BULLER

For a while, he had been an increasingly paunchy parody of himself. The frenetic, cocaine-infused finale at Napoli and subsequent drugs bust was followed by some short-lived rehabilitation until everything came crumbling down again one sorry evening in Dallas in the summer of ’94. But still, he courted publicity and celebrity like never before. Things were different, but he was okay with that. Recovery, relapse. Recovery, relapse. Recovery. No matter what, it seemed, Maradona was teflon. He endured, mostly in Argentina, where the adoration remained, even in spite of the silliness. Just prior to signing with Boca, he revealed he’d had a face lift. He was still adamant that Fifa had conspired to engineer his spectacular exit from the World Cup. Though, when he arrived at La Bombonera, he did so alongside Claudio Caniggia, who’d served a 13-month ban for cocaine use during his stint with Roma.

“Caniggia and I were kicked out of soccer together and now we’re coming back together”, he told the press.

Fans loved it.

And for the homecoming – a league clash against Colon – the extent of the ticker tape conjured instant flashbacks to the country’s World Cup triumph in 1978. It was a carnival. Of course, Maradona was immobile. But that was unimportant. What mattered was that he was still there.       

Burns’ book had gone places others hadn’t: particularly Maradona’s childhood, where one early incident served as an acute premonition. As a toddler, Burns learned, Maradona had wandered from the family shack in the depth of the night. Without any electricity (or running water), he got lost and fell in to a nearby cesspit. His uncle raced to rescue him as other family members instructed him to keep his head above the shit. Traumatised, he survived and it was left to his mother to comfort, calm and cleanse him. Almost from birth, he was marked as a survivor.

It’s one of many strands that Burns pulled on for Hand of God, but with the dust, dirt and poverty of Villa Fiorito as the anchor. Given the extremity of that background, it became clear why Maradona’s spell in Barcelona between 1982 and 1984 was a failure while his next move to Napoli proved a spectacular success.

“There’s a famous phrase from a Spanish philosopher, Jose Ortega Y Gasset, that says, ‘The definition of existence is who I am and my circumstances’”, Burns says. 

diego-maradona Source: Ciruelos

“In Barcelona, lest we forget, it was the first time Diego was away from his home environment. It was a culture, society, city and country that he was unfamiliar with. In Barcelona and Catalunya, it was an emerging cultural, post-Franco bubble. He was very much a Latin American coming into this relatively sophisticated European city and feeling very much an outsider. He had darker skin than most of the people that surrounded him so racially, he felt lesser. He didn’t really fit in. And, of course, the predecessor icon at the club was Johan Cruyff, this blonde Dutchman from Ajax who they had loved. He arrived in the dying days of the Franco regime and became a complete exemplar of democratic explosion with his liberal Dutch ideals. And then Diego turns up. And he struggles to fit.”

Contrasting that with Naples, he arrives there and it’s back to his roots, really. What does he find? Well, a city dominated by this subterranean society of the Camorra, the local mafia. And then the outside society had its own rules, regulations and power groups which was very similar to the environment of the shanty towns where he grew up. He had learned to survive there with that illegal legality – again, its own rules, regulations and protection systems. In Naples, he becomes part of that scene again. But more than that, he becomes the saviour. Napoli was always looked down upon by northern Italy and looked upon as a lesser being. But with Maradona getting in to his groove there, existentially – with his football, the people loving him, him engaging with the people and the team suddenly winning the Scudetto – for the first time in its history, Naples can give two fingers to the north. And Maradona becomes beatified.”                     

His seven-year itch at Napoli is the focus of Asif Kapadia’s recent HBO documentary, where an invaluable treasure trove of previously unseen footage (captured by two camera guys employed to track Maradona’s every move between 1981 and 1987 and always thought to have been lost or destroyed) is assembled to reveal two contrasting characters: ‘Diegito’, the forever child from the slums of Villa Fiorito, who kept his head above the shit long enough to stay alive, and ‘Maradona’, the boisterous creation, an alter-ego more in keeping with the madness of a new, plastic life. Ill-equipped to properly deal with two personalities, the latter starts to mutate and dominate until there’s nothing left of the former.          

soccer-italian-serie-a-napoli-v-fiorentina Maradona in action for Napoli against Fiorentina in May, 1987, the day the club clinched its very first championship. Source: Peter Robinson

Burns agrees that Maradona is certainly contradictory and hypocritical.  

“I find it difficult to get my head around the concept of ‘Diego’ or ‘Maradona’, because it’s one in the same being”, he says. 

“But in my experience of him, I do see this pretty bipolar, schizophrenic character, who was paranoid and neurotic at times. There was one aspect of him popularised and mythologized and that was ‘the people’s player’ who was taking on Fifa and speaking out against corruption. But he was the beginning of the real commercialisation of the modern age of football. And he, in some ways, personified its corruption because of the mingling of drugs with the sport and his failure to match his talent with any sense of social responsibility.” 

While Kapadia effectively concludes his work with Maradona’s successful penalty in the shootout against Italy in the 1990 World Cup semi-final – the quintessential death knell for his career – Burns’ book follows him beyond that moment, through the cocaine comedown, the ban, the forgettable stint with Sevilla, the fitful return to the national side and the eventual collapse of everything.    

Later, when the book was finalised, he traveled to London and gatecrashed a meeting between Maradona, his manager Guillermo Coppola and Gianluca Vialli at San Lorenzo’s restaurant in Knightsbridge, as rumours circulated that he was keen on signing for Chelsea. It was there that Burns presented his biographical subject with a copy, something he felt was the right thing to do. Days later, Maradona offered his review.

“Burns has pissed all over me”, he told a Spanish radio station.

He described the book as a work of fiction, distanced himself from those that contributed and threatened to sue them for their involvement. Burns – inevitably – was castigated and, soon afterwards, found himself caught in the middle of the public’s own struggle with their feelings towards Maradona.    

“I went to Argentina to present the Spanish-language version of the book and it was a pretty heavy time”, he says. 

Given I was a journalist there during the military regime, that’s saying something. The intimidation I received during the week I was in Buenos Aires promoting it…I realised the media was divided between those who were completely manipulated by Maradona, deferred to him, managed him almost as a mafia power and who subsequently really went for me and those who recognised the book as a serious piece of investigative biography and that it wasn’t done to make money. But it was heavy duty. Over a live broadcast on radio and TV and being accused of lying about Diego Maradona was the equivalent of saying Evita Peron was a bitch. It was like I’d crucified Evita. It was very intense pressure. But one of my Argentine colleagues went up to Guillermo Coppola, Maradona’s manager and who I actually got on quite well with, and asked, ‘Why are you giving Jimmy such a hard time over this?’ And he said, ‘Well, he didn’t give us 15% commission’”.      

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“But the one place Maradona remains – for better or for worse – is in Argentina. If you’re comparing him with poor old Messi, his greatest problem is the enduring shadow of Diego Maradona. It remains his point of reference. In Argentina, it will forever be the ’86 World Cup in Mexico, which again shows the double reaction. It depends on how you saw the Hand of God and if you focused on the first or second goal. It’s Diego the Thief and Diego the Genius in one match.”

imago-19860622 Source: via

“And if you’re doing a serious biographical study, you’ve got to see the subject warts ‘n’ all. It’s not a hagiography. What you see is the human being beyond the mythology and beyond the media hype. In that sense, I saw a lot of things about Diego Maradona that I didn’t like. I was up close and personal with him on two or three occasions and he didn’t really come across as a particularly nice guy. He was mostly out of his head, actually. And I kept saying that I’d prefer to think of him beating six players on an opposing team with a deft touch and poetic rhythm. And I tried to hang on to those good memories of Diego giving people a lot of joy when he was at the height of his game.”

Burns describes Maradona’s story as an ‘extraordinary telenovela’, so far-fetched and unimaginable, stretched way beyond the parameters of reality. Kapadia’s documentary echoes that sentiment and there’s a true cinematic quality to much of it – from its French Connection-inspired car sequence to the Scorsese-esque cuts of Maradona gleefully rubbing shoulders with the Camorra and proudly showing off his expensive gifts, a la Goodfellas’ Frankie Carbone and Johnny Roastbeef post-Lufthansa heist.          

“When Hand of God came out, people said it read like a mixture of Emmerdale and whatever the mid-90s equivalent of The Sopranos was”, Burns says.

soccer-world-cup-usa-94-group-d-argentina-v-greece Maradona infamously celebrates after scoring against Greece at the 1994 World Cup. This image was later used as the front cover of Jimmy Burns' biography, Hand of God. Source: Neal Simpson

“The point was that it was almost a fiction. But it was all part of the pot. Did it make Diego what he was? Absolutely. You can’t unbuckle or break away any of those elements. I still think one of the great tragedies is that Diego Maradona peaked at a far too early age. And part of the process has been reminding people that the story of Diego Maradona is the story of squandered genius, particularly when you compare him to football icons of today, not least the decade-long rivalry between Messi and Ronaldo – guys in their early-30s who are still the two players in the world people want to watch.”

Alright, we got to Naples with Maradona, but everything else from then on – in football terms – was downhill. Every time he appeared in a game, he was increasingly bloated. He was a lousy coach. And he became a rather pathetic figure to watch. The Naples period and the World Cup in 1990 marks the tragic dividing line in Diego Maradona’s life. When you look at what became of him after that: the drugs situation – which really began in Barcelona but the cocaine really got going in Naples, the way he got sucked in to this pretty nasty underworld of the Camorra, then his drugs bust when he came back to Argentina. And whatever Diego said about the ’94 World Cup being a conspiracy, just look at that photograph of him running towards the camera. The guy just had real demons. And they were in his eyes and in his attitude. That was the final nail in the coffin of the mythology of Diego Maradona enduring beyond his great days.” 

It’s the thirtieth anniversary of Napoli’s 1989/90 Scudetto triumph. It seems a good bet that the wait for another will continue for a while yet. For Argentina and their quest for World Cup glory, it’s something similar. And that’s the subplot to the Maradona story, really. What he provided to communities in two different countries – the inexplicable nature of it – has ensured his immortality.

And perhaps now – at a time when there’s more acceptance of people’s imperfections, an awareness of the complexities of substance abuse and a sensitivity regarding rehabilitation – it’s fitting to unpack Maradona again and try and understand him more.     

“With the modern football icons…we’re in a totally different ball game,” Burns says. 

“I interviewed Florentino Perez for my last football book and he said, ‘Ronaldo is probably the most important player we’ve ever had in Real Madrid history’. And I said, ‘What? More than Di Stefano? More than Puskas? Gento? Raul?’ And he goes, ‘Yeah, just look at his following on social media’. And that’s what it’s come to. I mean Diego couldn’t give a fuck about how many Twitter followers or Facebook likes he has. He belongs to another era. And there is an element – in this slightly artificial world we live in – of being separated from the raw humanity of people. And Diego Maradona endures because of his raw humanity. Because of the ‘tortured genius’ part of him. We all look at him and think we’re looking at ourselves in the mirror. We’re all pretty flawed. Most of us don’t admit to it. He’s so raw in how he throws it out in the open.”                                                   

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Eoin O'Callaghan

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