Pain and glory: The extraordinary life of Diego Maradona

Diego Maradona arrives at the Stadio San Paolo in Naples in the summer of 1984.
Diego Maradona arrives at the Stadio San Paolo in Naples in the summer of 1984. © Mars Films

One of sport’s most cinematic (anti)heroes, Diego Maradona died of a heart attack on Wednesday, aged 60. His rise and demise was the subject of a documentary by Asif Kapadia, the third and last instalment in a trilogy about child prodigies consumed by stardom.

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The scene is June 22, 1986, at the Estadio Azteca in Mexico City. On a sweltering afternoon, 114,000 dazzled fans have just witnessed Maradona score the greatest goal in World Cup history – and the Argentine commentator is waxing lyrical.

“Cosmic kite, what planet are you from that you can leave so many Englishmen in your wake?” the sportscaster yelps, sobbing with joy at a feat celebrated across Argentina as revenge for the Falklands War. “Thank you God for football and for Maradona!”

Maradona’s glorious run past England’s hapless defenders is the stuff of legend, second only in fame to the goal he scored minutes earlier with his hand – the “hand of God”, as he coined it. The outrageous one-two, which sealed Argentina’s quarter-final win over their bitter rivals, would define his career: the brilliance and the trickery, the prodigy and the myth.

The extraordinary case of Dr Diego and Mr Maradona is the subject of a documentary by Britain’s Asif Kapadia, which screened out of competition at the Cannes Film Festival last year.

The director has described “Diego Maradona” as the third and last instalment in a trilogy about child prodigies who struggled with fame. It follows “Senna”, his documentary on the racecar driver who died at 34 in a crash, and Oscar-winning “Amy”, about singer-songwriter Amy Winehouse and her tragic death at 27.

Maradona ultimately outlived them both, by a considerable margin, though for much of the past three decades his life seemed to be hanging by a thread.

'I’m after the glory, not the money'

A cinematic anti-hero, football's great prestidigitator was something of a Cannes habitué in his own right.

In 2015, a Maradona lookalike starred in Paolo Sorrentino’s “Youth”, a meditation on aging. His juggling display, bouncing a tennis ball with still-agile feet while dragging his humongous belly around the court, was a delight to watch. Years before, the man himself hit the red carpet for a screening of Emir Kusturica’s biopic “Maradona by Kusturica” – which, as the title suggested, was as much about the director as the footballer.

With Kapadia, Maradona’s remarkable life is in more dependable hands. His documentary focuses on the footballer’s Neapolitan years, from his arrival as a godsend to his cocaine-fuelled downfall.

“I’m after the glory, not the money,” says a still-young Maradona, early on in the film, as he quits mighty Barcelona for Italian laggards Napoli in the summer of 1984. Back then, the Italian club were yet to win a title and the city and its people were the butt of every racist joke in the country (to this day, rival fans still taunt them with chants of “Vesuvius, wash them with fire”).

It was a preposterous career move, unthinkable today. But Maradona and Naples proved to be a perfect match, sharing the same humble origins, intoxicating passion, and rebellious streak. El pibe de oro (the golden boy) soon lifted the team’s fortunes and restored the city’s pride – becoming, in the process, a hero, a saint and a god.

Kapadia’s film opens with breathtaking footage of Maradona’s first arrival at the San Paolo stadium, crammed with 85,000 delirious fans. The pandemonium is exhilarating and overwhelming, as is the two-month-long rumpus that follows Napoli’s very first title win three years later. Never before had a sport star aroused such levels of devotion and hysteria (at one point a nurse takes a sample of his blood to a local church to mix it with relics of San Gennaro, the city’s patron saint).

But the flipside of fame and the dark side of Naples soon catch up with Maradona. He has a child out of wedlock (which he refuses to recognise), frequents the Camorra (the local mafia), and becomes a cocaine addict. And when Argentina knock Italy out of the 1990 World Cup at the San Paolo stadium – of all places – the country turns against him. He is a fallen god, and the backlash is vicious.

Kapadia has uncovered an extraordinary wealth of documentary material, from black-and-white footage of Maradona as a little boy knocking a ball around in the slums of Buenos Aires to an audio recording of his phone conversation with his elated mother shortly after Argentina won the World Cup.

His film follows a familiar pattern, distinguishing between Diego – the shy, insecure and good-natured kid who supported his family from the age of 15 – and Maradona – the god-like public persona he became. A beautiful homage to the most exceptional footballer of all time, it will leave viewers dazzled by the football, the passion and the aura, but yearning to dig deeper into the man’s inner turmoil.

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