Diego Maradona: An Intimate Epic


Ben Jordan reviews Asif Kapadia's documentary on the football legend

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By Ben Jordan

Diego Maradona is an intimate epic about one of the most maligned figures in the history of football. Kapadia takes us from the squalor of Buenos Aires to the illicit underworld of Naples on a rollercoaster ride as we try to keep pace with its titular figure. This is a task easier said than done, but with Kapadia at the reins our whistle stop tour feels a breeze across the 130 minutes of this film.

Our journey begins in Naples, in 1984. Maradona has just arrived at Napoli for a world-record fee and is greeted by upwards of 75,000 fans who have lined the streets to catch a glimpse of “El Pibe de Oro” (The Golden Boy) on his way to the Stadio San Paolo. Maradona was as revered in Naples during his time at Napoli as he was reviled across the rest of Italy. From the start of his career at Napoli Maradona was subject to racial abuse from opposition fans not so much on account of his nationality, but his choice of club. Naples was a deprived part of Italy at the time, and the chants and banners of opposition fans are characteristic of an anti-Neapolitan sentiment that was apparent across Italy. Maradona is still a controversial figure in Italy to this day (more on that later), but in Naples at least his canonical status verges on divine. Perhaps the best part of this documentary are its anecdotes told by those closest to him. My favourite part was when a Napoli fan tells of driving past the local cemetery in the wake of their seminal Serie A win in the 1986/7 season, only to find a banner sprawled across its entrance bearing a message for the dead: “You don’t know what you’ve missed”.

Like Amy before it, Diego Maradona showcases Kapadia’s talent for trying to find some semblance of truth amongst the chaos. This is even more impressive in a life as tumultuous as Maradona’s, and the documentary does not shy away from depicting some of the more controversial aspects of his life, such as his connection to the Camorra and his notorious cocaine addiction. But the icon that is Maradona ultimately shines through in the midst of all this anarchy, and whilst some of his more illustrious moments (such as his 1986 World Cup win) are conveyed in all their glory, there is still a personal touch that renders the divine human. This sense of divinity is palpable throughout this documentary, but so is the humanity that accompanies it, as if Maradona is fated to be a demigod. His infamous performance against England in the same tournament (considered by some to be the best ever) is interspersed with a tour of his bedroom during the World Cup, complete with a scene of Maradona praising his icon of the Virgin Mary and his pornographic poster in the same breath.

There is a certain degree of sympathy towards Maradona in this documentary, particularly when the focus comes to his time at Napoli after 1989, when there is an argument to be made that the club was parasitic on his talent. This comes to a head in 1990, after Maradona asks his Neapolitan supporters to favour Argentina over Italy in their seminal semi-final tie in his resident Naples. The man who Neapolitans once revered as a god is soon reviled as a devil after Argentina knock Italy out of the World Cup, causing Maradona to be dubbed the most hated man in Italy. From this point onward we see a shell of the man that we once knew, as his connection to the Camorra and cocaine addiction are exposed as part of an elaborate operation which led to his unprecedented ban by FIFA in 1991.

His fall is as tragic as his rise is cathartic, and Kapadia uses practically every colour on the cinematic palette to depict Maradona in all his enigmatic splendour. To some he’s a rebel: to others a cheat, a hero, or a god. Diego Maradona ultimately paints a disparate portrait of its titular figure in which he is somehow all of these things at once, and none of them at all.