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Diego Maradona

a spectacle of such unremitting passion, unremitting euphoria, unremitting catastrophe

★★★★ - THE GUARDIAN 

- A bit of cheating and a lot of genius.” That’s how someone in this film summarises the Argentinian football megastar Diego Maradona after his triumphant performance in the 1986 World Cup, and it seems fair. The film gives you a chance to gauge how the cheating was a minor ingredient of the genius, not an adjacent flaw.

Argentina defeated West Germany 3-2 in the final, with Maradona’s pass to Jorge Burruchaga setting up both the winning goal and his own godlike status, and when Asif Kapadia’s documentary replays the audio recording of Diego’s tearful telephone call to his elderly mother in Argentina after the match … well, even Margaret Thatcher and Falklands governor Rex Hunt might have sobbed at his emotional salute to the woman who brought up his sisters and him in the dirt-poor slums of Buenos Aires. Diego cheekily called his handball in the quarter final against England “the hand of God” – he habitually invoked the Almighty for other successes – and he wasn’t entirely kidding. It was divine assistance in favour of the dispossessed. (We also see how England’s Terry Fenwick elbowed him in the face.)

Kapadia’s film is a gripping account of Maradona’s playing career until the mid-90s, though it is flawed by a lack of new material of the sort he had for his previous film about Amy Winehouse, and also by the lack of discussion of Maradona’s famous Che and Fidel tattoos and his avowed support for socialist politics. Do we take that seriously or not?

Like Kapadia’s documentary about Ayrton Senna, this is in visual terms composed almost entirely of existing TV footage, cleverly chosen and shaped. Kapadia uses voiceover commentaries from various observers to add context, including some reminiscence from the present-day Maradona, although it isn’t entirely clear if this is new material.

Over the course of the film, you become expert at catching the flash of panic or resentment in Maradona’s eyes. Imbibing over two hours of televisual glaze and scan lines on the cinema screen induces a kind of hysteria, especially when it is a spectacle of such unremitting passion, unremitting euphoria, unremitting catastrophe, mass hysteria on the streets of Buenos Aires and Naples. Goals, nightclubs, goals, adulation, goals, gangsters, keepy-uppy, girlfriends, pregnancies, pregnancy denials, cocaine, weight gain, press fickleness, despair – it’s like a 130-minute Match of the Day title sequence created by Sophocles.

We see his boyhood in the shantytown of Villa Fiorito, his contract for Argentinos Juniors at the age of 15, when he moved his entire family into the apartment he had been given and became the breadwinner. We see his calamitous career at Barcelona in the early 80s, a couple of seasons of underwhelming performance, injuries and fighting – and then the move to Naples, where his staggering successes made him a hero and a living saint, and a fellow-travelling “made guy” for the Camorrista mobsters. The city that had been routinely derided by the more prosperous clubs and cities of the north – with ugly terrace chanting of “lavatevi” (“wash yourselves”) – became the national champions. Maybe he needed to be with the Napoli underdogs – not with sleek Barcelona – for his defiant brilliance to explode.

Until seeing this, I hadn’t appreciated the purely agonising and even tragic conflict of loyalties that finally emerged when Argentina had to play Italy in the Naples stadium in the 1990 World Cup. Diego made the serious error of saying that Neapolitans should support Argentina against Italy, apparently harping on that painful north-south division that he had done so much to help Naples surmount. And when Argentina won, it was too much: Naples’ own adulation for Diego humiliated the city. All their successes were brutally revealed to be just him – and now he had committed an unpardonable taboo. From there on it was downhill, his cocaine addictions got worse and his acquaintances among the Naples mob and legal establishment no longer felt like protecting him.

The sight of Maradona playing is fascinating. Karl Miller of the London Review of Books famously described Paul Gascoigne at Italia 90 as “a priapic monolith in the Mediterranean sun” and that could almost apply to Maradona. It’s great to watch his breathtaking turn of speed, that centre of gravity so low it was like a stealth bomber zooming untacklably along just a foot above the turf.

- PETER BRADSHAW, GUARDIAN

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