Seven years is enough to represent a lifetime. Rather than attempting to tell the story of Diego Maradona’s entire life, Maradona director Asif Kapadia hones in on the Argentine striker’s time at Napoli from 1984-91. The documentary begins with Maradona speeding through Naples in a car, eager to wipe out his previous failure at Barcelona, before being presented to 85,000 adoring supporters. In a cyclical, predictable nature, Maradona’s time in Italy also ends with him fleeing the country in disgrace, alone this time. According to his sister, Maradona’s story is one of loneliness, of the responsibility of taking care of his family since he signed his first professional contract as a teenager. One can never escape themselves, regardless of the country or the trophies.
Though many would argue, as they did in the documentary, that you didn’t even need seven years but just one match to symbolize the dichotomy of Maradona. The 1986 World Cup quarterfinal between Argentina and England, in which Maradona scored two of the most famous goals of his career and in soccer history, would be enough. Maradona opened the scoring in the second half with the “Hand of God.” It was an intuitive moment of problem solving from his description. He followed that up minutes later with “The Goal of the Century,” receiving the ball in his own half, turning, and beating England’s entire midfield and backline. The observation was that there was a little bit of cheating, but a whole lot of genius. That duality, played out between the characters of Diego and Maradona, also became a way of life.
“My advice to you is just be aware that you are going to be in the presence of the world’s greatest liar,” Maradona’s trainer Fernando Signorini warned Kapadia before interviewing the film’s chief subject. Likewise, there is no singular narrator throughout the documentary, changing voices from Maradona, his family members, teammates, to team president Corrado Ferlaino. Signorini sets the thesis with is observation that there are two people within Diego Maradona: there is Diego, the person, and Maradona, the persona. We see Diego from the day-to-day, behind the scenes footage that shows the normalcy of everyday life that no genius can escape. But at some point, there was no turning back as Maradona took control over Diego, with the armor of a persona shielding the person from a combination of idolatry, crippling addiction, and the hostility of Italy at the time.
Napoli and Naples loom as large of characters as Maradona. Not only that, the documentary serves as a tribute to Serie A during the time when it reigned as the best league in the world. Maradona personified the street wisdom of Naples, showing how sport - or an individual - can be a wider reflection of a place. Maradona grew without running water in the slums of Buenos Aires. Kasadia presents footage of opposition supporters all around Serie A shaming Napoli supporters about cholera. Player and club rose together. Maradona observed that the power structure within the league wanted him to be a superstar at Napoli, which he was. The problems with the press began when the team started winning league titles, upsetting the Serie A order.
In watching the raw footage of Maradona perform on the field with Napoli and Argentina, I realized how much I was conditioned by the modern soccer viewing experience of attempting to figure out formations, tactics, and structures. Though his is an expression that no longer exists today in either a tiki-taka or pressing era that favors the collective structure over the individual. The match footage throughout the film showed a slower, individualistic game, featuring clear 1 v 1 duels between an attacker and defender. We might ask where the Maradona’s are today, but we intuitively understand how the contemporary game has no room for that type of individuality. And with the current day analysis and video technology showcasing the game like never before, have we lost something in the enjoyment, feeling, and ability to get lost in the moment like the first time Maradona won the Serie A title with Napoli?
Does knowing more augment, or diminish the magic?
Kapadia’s two prior documentaries, Senna and Amy, are also centered on singular geniuses. We can see similarities running throughout Kapadia’s work in the circular ecosystem that builds up, turns against, and ultimately destroys heroes. Though, as Kapadia says, the difference is that unlike Ayrton Senna and Amy Winehouse, Maradona is still alive. It’s not just a story of a genius who lived too fast, but also what it means to live with the ramifications of one no longer able to express their craft. It’s been 22 years now since Maradona last played a professional match.
Yet Maradona still continues to resonate, even in the social media age. His reactions during the 2018 World Cup went viral, and given the language that Kapadia presents in the film, we can see that it’s full-on Maradona in those clips in lieu of Diego. Signorini recalls telling Maradona that he would walk to the end of the world for Diego, but wouldn’t take a step for Maradona. Maradona responded by saying that without Maradona, he would still be in the slums. Could it be that in creating an alter-persona that led to his downfall also ironically played a role in his survival in the modern age?
And Maradona is not only just surviving, he is actually succeeding from a certain perspective. Currently the manager of Gimnasia de la Plata in Argentina’s top division, he recently won his first match as manager. Yet the obsession follows: during his first match in charge, there was a Maradona-cam on YouTube dedicated to watching his reactions throughout the match (much of which involved him sitting in a chair). There was also a video of his ecstatic dancing following his first win with Gimnasia.
It was a reminder that the camera is a neutral observer, and it’s the context which shapes our perception.
Maradona described football as a game of deceit, using feints to make defenders think he was going one way, before changing directions. That perspective is of someone on the margins, from the outside unable to play it straight and succeed without some cunning. He wasn’t the fastest, tallest, or most athletic, thus he was forced to develop his mind in dribbling in and out of areas, cutting back and forth, creating and finding space in impossible ways. In describing what was wrong with contemporary Argentine football, Maradona’s World Cup-winning teammate Jorge Valdano (scorer of the second goal in the final against West Germany) recently said that the national team valued “balls” over the “skill, quality, fantasy, cunning, precision” exemplified by Maradona.
On the same night of the documtary’s premiere on HBO, Boca Juniors played River Plate in the first leg of the Copa Libertadores semifinals. The second leg of last year’s final between the two sides had to be moved to Spain after River Plate supporters attacked Boca Juniors’ bus with tear gas. Days after the documentary’s premiere, a 31-year-old Gonzalo Higuain, once criticized by Maradona for moving from Napoli to Juventus, came off the bench to score the match-winning goal against Inter. One doesn’t need to go very far to find the dichotomy of Argentine soccer, between its street-influenced madness and cunning brilliance on the field, continue to play out today.