Review: Diego Maradona directed by Asif Kapadia

A while back, a friend gave me a piece of Diego Maradona memorabilia from his legendary Napoli days. It’s a Maradona school diary (‘a scuola da Maradona’) printed on the eve of the Argentinian’s triumph in Mexico in 1986. On the front cover the player sits on a football, dressed in a blue tracksuit, and does some keepie-uppies. Further inside, he trains in the Naples sunshine, running in a phalanx of teammates, out ahead on his own. Every day the diary provides some choice piece of advice from the Argentine on training or tactics or the rules of football. The entry for 18th October details the reasons for awarding a direct freekick:

hitting or attempting to hit an opponent with the arm or with a kick to make a player fall; jumping on top of an opponent to stop them playing the ball; holding or pulling an opposing player; striking the ball with the hand…

Alongside this is an illustration of Maradona being elbowed by a defender bearing an uncanny resemblance to Burt Reynolds.

Some may smirk at the idea of Maradona teaching Italian children the rules of the game but he had reason to know them more than others. In an era when players were much freer to kick, pull and elbow their opponents, one of the most effective tactics for stopping the world’s best player was simply to down him. Asif Kapadia’s wonderful new documentary on Maradona captures this on-field carnage. But its most striking moments detail the crossovers between his life on the pitch, with those off it. In one frame, the Argentine bounces between opponents; in the next, he is swamped by local fans and bundled into the back of a car. On the field he could pick himself up, but outside the stadium his life descended into chaos.

Kapadia’s film focuses on Maradona’s stint in Naples, the period in his career where he inspired Argentina to World Cup triumph and then guided Napoli to their first ever scudetto in 1987. The city provided both the perfect environment for the player’s talent and, in turn, the pattern for his downfall.

From the outset he is greeted as a local hero and a saint. The film details the ecstatic reaction to Napoli’s victory in ’87 and the attempts of the local mafia to utilise his image. But suffocated by his Neapolitan fame, Diego, the boy from the slums who played football from the age of 15 to support his family, slipped into the background. In his place, Kapadia suggests, came Maradona, the fragile public persona who escaped fame with football, partying and drug addiction.

Those familiar with Kapadia’s previous portrayals of Amy Winehouse and Ayrton Senna will recognise aspects of both figures and films blended in the Argentine. It is a careful balancing act in which the elements of genius compete with those of self-destruction. Unlike the tabloid splashes of the day, the film apportions blame more evenly between Maradona and those who failed him: the owner, who refused to sell Maradona despite the player’s troubles with addiction and the need to move out of the spotlight; the mafia, who used the drugs to control him; and the fans, who fickly turned on him when Argentina beat the hosts of Italia 90 on penalties.

‘I am happy’, Maradona writes at the end of the school diary, ‘to have been able to contribute to a better comprehension of the spectacle offered by the most beautiful sport in the world’. We, in turn, are fortunate for Kapadia’s film. Diego Maradona is a sympathetic portrait and all the better for it, making the player’s demons more comprehensible and his achievements more improbable.

 

 

Diego Maradona (film released 2019). Directed by Asif Kapadia.

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