Diego | Maradona

I somehow managed to miss both of Asif Kapadia’s previous documentaries (“Senna” and “Amy”) which got rave reviews, so I thought that I’d better go and see this one. This has also been almost irredeemably lauded by the press, and you could hardly get a more interesting subject.

Diego Maradona was born in the slums of Buenos Aries. From the age of 15 he financially supported his large family, and following a false start in Barcelona he moved to Naples, a poverty stricken port, subject to class-based hostility from people in other parts of Italy.

He almost single-handedly took the local side Napoli to its first two league championships and a UEFA cup win, he captained Argentina to a World Cup victory, and by the time his career was effectively destroyed in a drugs scandal, he was still only 30.

So there’s lots of interest here, and not just on the football level. Early on in the film a journalist asks Maradona about Napoli’s links with the Camorra. The journalist is hustled out of the room as the club president hotly denies any links. But as Maradona becomes increasingly dependent on cocaine, he develops an equivalent dependency on his suppliers from organised crime.

Its a shame, then, that I can’t quite share the uncritical adulation from the press. It was a good watch, but there were a number of aspects which didn’t really work for me.

First there was the main thesis of the film, which runs something like this. In 1990, the World Cup was in Italy. The semi-final – between the hosts and Maradona’s Argentina – was in Naples. Maradona made an off-the-cuff remark that Naples isn’t part of Italy, and called on locals to support Argentina. He then scored one of the goals in a penalty shootout, which resulted in the press, football fans and the drug squad ganging up on him and forcing him out of the game.

Now on a very superficial level, there is some truth here. People in Britain are aware of a similar pile-on against Maradona, after the “Hand of God” – the handball that he scored against England in an earlier World Cup. There really was a wave of attacks against Maradona led by a right-wing press that was still smarting from the Falklands War.

Yet the film gives the impression that there was a direct causal relationship between Maradona’s appeal to local support and the drug squad finally deciding that this time they needed his piss for a urine bottle and not the random bottle that they’d previously accepted without question. You get the impression that the film is saying, if Maradona had not made this remark, the drug squad would have left him alone.

But just as in the British case, the press saw a shift in public mood as an opportunity to prey on the corrosive nationalism the surrounds sport, and to isolate the wrong sort of person who played for an unfashionable team. Its not that the press and the establishment were fully on his side before then. This is a man with a Che Guevara tattoo who had used an air rifle against journalists. There is an interesting story to be told here, which is mainly dealt with in superficial headlines.

Secondly, the film’s morality seems to be somewhat selective. Mirroring the press hysteria, Maradona’s cocaine use is scandalised while his use of prostitutes is just mentioned as a passing detail, Similarly he originally strongly denies that he had an illegitimate child. Towards the end of the film, he has a reconciliation with this child – something which does not seem to require any further comment. Its almost as if abusing your own body is horrific, but if its only women who you’re abusing, that’s no problem at all.

I also wasn’t really convinced by the format. There are too many home movies or old photos with someone talking over it. And there are way too many clips of old football matches (you know we have youtube for that now?) It all felt too old-fashioned, and it meant that the film went on way too long. Over two hours? Really?

It starts off much better. Before the credits, we have a simulated car chase while the story of Maradona’s childhood and early years in Barcelona are told. It is tight, sparse, and tells us everything we need to know. The rest of the film is full of vague pyschobabble about there being Diego the man and Maradona the star, without really providing enough information to back up its thesis.

This is not a bad film. There’s a lot of interesting interviews with Maradona’s personal trainer and the great historian of Italy John Foot. But its all just a bit too laboured and imprecise. Its ok, but if the press had been a little less euphoric, maybe I’d have felt less need to point our the areas it doesn’t quite work.

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