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The story of the Argentine hero who arrived at Napoli for a world-record fee and left a villain

A fascinating new documentary explores the bittersweet life of Diego Maradona.

The film focuses primarily on Maradona's spell at Napoli.
The film focuses primarily on Maradona's spell at Napoli.
Image: EMPICS Sport

A NEW FILM by Asif Kapadia on the troubled life of Diego Maradona is in many ways comparable to one of his previous documentaries on legendary Formula One driver, Ayrton Senna.

Both films depict immensely talented individuals’ rise to stardom, and the subsequent problems that come with fame. Senna and Maradona have a similar penchant for life’s thrills and a quite possibly interlinked inherent tendency towards self-destruction. And while ‘Senna’ concludes with the Brazilian icon’s tragic death, Maradona ultimately survives, although undergoes a kind of metaphorical death — one scene shows the bloated modern incarnation of the Argentine superstar struggling to get around the pitch amid an ordinary, mundane five-a-side match in which the standard is noticeably poor (yes, even by the standards a routine five-a-side).

The two documentaries are ultimately about mortality and the fleetingness of fame. While it covers all aspects of his life to a degree, Kapadia’s film — which is constructed from over 500 hours of never-before-seen footage from Maradona’s personal archive and backed by the man himself — focuses primarily on the ingenious player’s spell at Napoli between 1984 and 1991, the peak of his career effectively.

When Maradona arrives at Napoli for a world-record fee of £6.9 million, there is already a sense that he has been written off in some quarters. He joined them, he says, because no other big team wanted him. Upon arrival, the club don’t appear to totally convinced either, giving him a flat when he asks for a house, and a Fiat when he asks for a Ferrari.

It is easy to forget now that he is widely considered one of the greatest players ever, but at the time, the transfer of Maradona was not considered a guaranteed success. His two-year spell at Barcelona had been a disappointment. The club won just one major trophy, the 1983 Copa del Rey, during his time there following his arrival in 1982, again for a world-record fee of £5 million.

A bout of hepatitis as well as a broken ankle slowed Maradona’s progress at the Catalan side, with some critics fearing his career could be in danger owing to the latter incident. He was then at the centre of an on-pitch brawl in the 1984 Copa del Rey final amid an atmosphere of racism and xenophobia aimed primarily at him in the stadium. With 100,000 attending and millions watching on TV, the incident reflected poorly on both clubs and paved the way for Maradona’s acrimonious exit ultimately.

The star’s time at Barcelona is summarised via a brief montage at the start of the film, with some impressive close-up on-field footage giving a sense of the intensity of the moment, particularly during that infamous cup final.

Despite all these problems, however, at Napoli, he is treated like an instant hero, with 75,000 fans turning up at the Stadio San Paolo. As David Goldblatt notes: “They [the fans] were convinced that the saviour had arrived.”A local newspaper stated that despite the lack of a “mayor, houses, schools, buses, employment and sanitation, none of this matters because we have Maradona”.

Napoli were struggling on the pitch at the time, while the area in general had its problems. The film shows footage of Maradona’s first press conference, in which a journalist is ejected at the behest of the club president, after asking the star a question relating to the local mafia and whether he is aware of their prominence.

Source: Film4/YouTube

This scene begins a strand for one of the film’s primary themes – Maradona’s inextricable links to the Camorra crime syndicate. This problem ultimately introduces the footballer to a world of drugs and prostitution, though despite these issues, the Argentine legend manages to perform magnificently on the pitch, becoming club captain and leading Napoli to a first-ever Serie A title in 1987 and a second triumph in 1990.

No team in the south of the Italian Peninsula had ever won a league title prior to that famous, wildly celebrated success. Opposition fans from Juventus, Milan and Roma among others looked down on Napoli essentially as scum and the film emphasises the political significance of their win, highlighting how it was perceived as a victory for ‘the other Italy’. Their triumphs allow the Neapolitans to very much lord it over their upper-class opponents, whose fans chant “wash yourselves” among numerous other unsavoury taunts in their direction.

The film also devotes plenty of attention to Maradona’s two World Cup appearances during this period. In 1986, he emerges as the hero, scoring twice to inspire Argentina to a 2-1 quarter-final win over England at a time when relations between the two countries were more fraught than ever owing to the Falklands War and ultimately helping the country win the tournament outright.

The 1990 World Cup, by contrast, is portrayed as the beginning of end of Maradona’s hero status in Naples. He implores Neapolitans to support Argentina rather than Italy, seemingly attempting to capitalise on and exploit the well-documented divisions within the country. He ultimately helps his side knock out the tournament hosts amid the semi-finals in Napoli’s home stadium, significantly decreasing his popularity there in the process.

Thereafter, one commentator in the film contends, the protection he received from the legal system, mafia figures and others abated, and his drug and crime-related wrongdoings were suddenly exposed. His cocaine use catches up with him and he gets banned for 15 months after failing a drugs test. He departs Napoli as a result in disgrace, with footage of a melancholic Maradona leaving the airport, while underlining the contrast with his arrival in front of 75,000 to his departure “alone”.

Another controversy the film focuses on is Maradona’s serial infidelity and in particular, the scandal over an affair between the player and local woman Cristiana Sinagra, resulting in a son being born in 1986. Despite the distraught woman’s claims to the contrary, Maradona repeatedly denies the boy is his. The film then shows footage of a meeting between the two in Buenos Aires in 2016, when Maradona finally publicly acknowledges Sinagra as his son.

Kapadia’s documentary, the first he has directed since 2015′s critically-acclaimed ‘Amy,’ doesn’t shy away from Maradona’s countless ‘demons’ and offers partial explanations for his many problems, as acknowledged by his modern incarnation during a tearful talkshow appearance. The film highlights his impoverished beginnings and how he used sport as a means to evade them, illustrating the substantial pressure he was under, to be the primary breadwinner for his family from his teens onwards, and to cope with the various on and off-field pressures that such gargantuan fame creates.

One of the main reasons for the immense popularity of ‘Senna’ was due to the sheer likeability of its principal character. The same cannot be said in this instance and whether the film makes a convincing case that Maradona warrants the audience’s sympathy will likely vary with each other individual viewer. Nonetheless, while there are unlikely to be too many major surprises to those already overtly familiar with the icon’s story, it is a compelling way to spend 130 minutes for those with only a cursory knowledge of the Argentine superstar’s career.

For much of the film, Maradona comes across as a big kid, innocent, impulsive and naive in equal measure. Football, drugs and women are his form of escape from a perennially unforgiving society. “When you’re on the pitch,” he says. “Everything goes away.” Yet once his gifts dissipate, he is left only with the harshness of reality and the bitter recriminations of a fickle public invariably intent on demonising him. 

‘Diego Maradona’ is out in Irish cinemas from 14 June

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About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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