Diego Maradona is arguably the most gifted footballer the world has ever laid eyes on. A mercurial talent whose genius knew no bounds. But, as a new documentary by Asif Kapadia shows, Maradona’s time at Napoli was also the beginning of the end. We sent Richard Lee-Graham to watch the biopic, which is at cinemas from June 14.
I’d been invited get an early look at the new Diego Maradona documentary at a private screening in Soho, and, having never been to a private screening in my life, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. Perhaps a few tepid Peronis laid out on a table? Perhaps some elbow grazing with luminaries of football journalism, e.g. Tim Lovejoy? Perhaps the Director of the film, Asif Kapadia, would give a genial intro and Maradona himself would come from behind the screen, radiant with sobriety, in full Argentina kit, socks rolled down to his ankles, his voluminous perm restored and bouncing as he performed a quick flurry of back-heeled keepie-uppies for our enjoyment?
But there were no Peronis. No Director. And of course, no Maradona. (Tim Lovejoy was present).
Nevertheless, this was all free so I could hardly grumble, and when I heard that the makers of Senna and Amy had chosen Maradona as the focus of their latest documentary, I thought: Of course. These guys excel in tragedy; rise and fall; flawed greatness. Of course Maradona.
But we’ve seen a lot of Maradona already, haven’t we? The Hand of God, The Goal that followed, the jubilant cradling of the World Cup like a gleaming, big-headed new-born. We’re well-versed in his slide toward cocaine addiction, and now, sadly, a clownish and portly mascot for the manqué Argentine national football team. So, what else is there to see? What else to say?
We were led into a basement screening room the size of a small newsagents, home to around 20 enormous blue cinema chairs heaped up at one end like they’d been tipped to the stern of a sinking cruise liner, all facing a screen no bigger than a family dinner table. I made my way to the back corner towards the monstrous blue seats, which, to their credit, looked exceptionally comfortable.
But they weren’t. No, they weren’t at all. I don’t know what the opposite of ergonomic is, but these were exactly that. I don’t mean un-ergonomic. No. I mean they had been precisely designed and angled with the purpose of rejecting the human body. Whomever decided, presumably after testing them out for themselves, that these chairs would be ideal for the patrons of a screening room, clearly hated all people, the act of sitting, and spines. This person hated me. And they hated Tim Lovejoy.
Early signs were promising. The film launches into a thrilling opening sequence: a retro-Fiat car chase through frenzied streets, cut with shots of a youthful Diego at Boca and Barca, montaging his early career against a pulsing electro soundtrack, and finally ending up in 1984 to zero-in on a segment of his life spent in Naples, one Europe’s poorest and most dysfunctional cities at the time. It was a period I knew little about. Indeed, I doubt many people think of Maradona’s club career when they picture the man. We see him in the blue-and-white of Argentina, not the blue of Napoli. But we quickly learn that he was a deity to the people of Naples; their patron saint, Jesus Christ, and God, all wrapped up in one mortal who delivered a period of hysterical joy to a downtrodden town that’d had so little to cheer in its recent history. He was their saviour.
But Maradona is also one of sports great anti-heroes, and while the film takes a more sympathetic look at Maradona, it cannot avoid the murkier facets of his persona. So, in an effort to maintain the audience’s sympathy, the film splits our protagonist in two: We are presented ‘Diego’, a boy from the slums of Buenos Aires; a frightened rabbit in the headlights of Naples’ obsessive adoration, who wanted nothing more from football than to provide a home for his mother. Then we have ‘Maradona’: we know this guy. The genius, the enigma, the wretch. This is a film about Diego versus Maradona, and there can only be one victor. We root for Diego, despite knowing who wins. Maradona must win. Because, in his own words, without ‘Maradona’, Diego would still be in the slums.
No matter your disdain for the mercurial footballer that England has come to cast as our pantomime villain, it becomes impossible not to feel for Diego, naively trapped in the chaos of a situation that burgeons into a fervent cocaine addiction. And, as the present-day Maradona wistfully voice-overs restored footage of his young image performing miracles on the pitch (his only other escape), I found myself consumed by Diego’s pain – not his sciatica, for which he required regular pain-killing injections, but his yearning for a simpler and more peaceful life.
But this pain was also due to the malicious chair I was sitting in. Why did no one else appear to be suffering? Only I seemed to be shifting every half-a-minute, every position unlocking a new and more zealous torture. Tim Lovejoy had barely moved a muscle. The only solidarity I could find was with Diego -- my discomfort quite clearly in perfect concert with his isolating failure to bear the love of an entire city.
Towards the end of the two hour viewing time, it was only then that my attention waned and my back pain became too much to bare, because, unlike Senna and Amy, there is no ending to this story. The final tragedy for Maradona has yet to be written. And for this reason, it doesn’t quite match the heights of Kapadia’s previous works, because it cannot match their lows. In other words: we’re not able to view this documentary through the grievous knowledge of a prematurely snatched life. But I, for one, hope Diego’s story ends well; I hope we don’t get the tragic ending that he seems to be plummeting towards. And when picturing Diego Maradona, I, for one, will now see the blue of Napoli, and, quite possibly, the blue of the worse seat I’ve ever sat in. But the greatest credit I can give this documentary is that it made me forget how I may have felt about Maradona (and my back), and made me feel for Diego.