ANYONE who watched the World Cup 1986 “hand of God” incident will have preconceived views about Diego Armando Maradona. In the space of six minutes in Mexico City, the game against England displayed everything that was good and bad about him. If VAR was in use in 1986, Maradona would have been sent off and Argentina would surely not have beaten England. History would have been so different.
Asif Kapadia’s excellent film, Diego Maradona, portrays the Argentinian icon in all his guises, as brilliant footballer, as good-time Charlie, as defiant product of the slums, and perhaps most surprisingly, as victim. In terms of natural talent, Maradona probably had no equals. Pelé, perhaps, comes close, but other greats such as Cruyff, Beckenbauer and George Best do not match Maradona for raw, animal ability.
It’s not easy to like Maradona, but you cannot help but sit open-mouthed at the impact he had on people. He was, effectively, of the people, the representative of the masses on the field of play.
When Maradona moved to Barcelona in 1982 it was after a fractious World Cup in Spain. The timing could not have been worse. Here was the latest wonder-kid from Latin America, commanding a world record fee of £ 5 million with expectation weighing upon him. It was difficult for him to be the king-pin in Barcelona and he was an obvious target for the assassin-like defenders of La Liga. He didn’t appear happy in Spain, injury and illness playing their part, and his involvement in a brawl on the pitch towards the end of his second season, with TV capturing Maradona kicking opponents with some venom, was the final straw. The player wanted out and the club had seemingly had enough.
There was no big queue of takers for the player that looked to have lost his way, but Napoli – an unlikely destination – stepped in and paid £ 6.9 million to take him to the south of Italy. Argentina has always had a link with Italy, in that cities like Buenos Aires had many people with Italian ancestry.
Kapadia’s clever editing suggests that everywhere Maradona went, there was chaos and confusion. Naples provided the ideal escape route for Maradona from the media glare and politics of Barcelona and the local people saw him as a messianic figure that could take an underachieving club to unprecedented glory.
But, as ever, he was a target. The very first question at the introductory press conference asked a confused Maradona if he knew who the Camorra were, which drew an angry response from the club’s president who called for the journalist to be evicted from the room.
The script for Maradona in Naples, somewhat predictably, would not end well. It was a classic tale of a journey to glory – two Serie A titles in 1987 and 1990, one UEFA Cup and the Coppa Italia. Maradona did lead his club to glory, playing in front of huge crowds. Between 1984-85 and 1988-89, Napoli’s average attendance was in excess of 70,000. In between domestic success, Maradona went to two World Cup finals, in 1986 when he inspired his country to victory over West Germany and 1990 when a limited and bad tempered team lost to the team they had beaten in Mexico four years earlier.
Although he remained a pivotal figure, albeit one that seemed to look heavier and heavier towards the end of his Napoli career, it was his off-pitch life that started to bring down the curtain on Maradona’s golden period. Temptation has always been thrust in the face of wealthy young footballers, but Maradona – a man of excess – also had the influence of characters from the underworld. At times, the film portrays him as a haunted figure, hemmed-in by his relationships and environment. He also lost his popularity and his “protection”, not because of his ability, but because of the ill-timed and ludicrous attempt to divide Italy’s footballing population during the 1990 World Cup. Given Maradona was the talisman for a nation that had something of a siege mentality, his plea to Italians to back another country – using the North v South conflict in Italy as the ignition key – was badly judged and painted him in a very poor light. The people that had taken him to their hearts and provided a backdrop that made a scruffy kid from the backstreets of Buenos Aires feel at home, suddenly grew tired of him and the authorities were also after him. The story had now reached the “fall” chapter in the rise and fall of Diego Maradona.
Why is he so different? While other legendary figures are admired for their skill, their influence on a game and their personality, Maradona represents the classic tale of the poor boy made good, who flies high and self-destructs. Maradona never truly changed from being that kid. He lived a hedonistic life – drugs, drink, women, notoriety – because he could. He paid for it and deep down, we all know this story will not have a happy ending. Although players like George Best were fabulous to watch, Maradona seems to embody “the struggle”, slaloming his way past defenders, getting chopped down, relentlessly pushing on towards goal. And then, when he scores, it is the triumph of the soul, the will of God decreeing that Maradona (he always referred to himself in the third person) should succeed. More than 30 years after his time in Naples, Maradona shrines, murals and souvenirs proliferate the tight, shabby streets. He has a very special status in a deeply religious city.
The film leaves you wishing that somehow, it could have been different, that this incredibly talented player could have gracefully ended his playing days and become an influential figure in football through his retirement. But the drama seems to go on – Maradona is not “establishment”, he is a rebel, a non-confirmist, a maverick and an actor on a stage. In 2018, at the World Cup, he was pictured, cigar in hand, berating people in the stand below him. He looked a troubled man. People worried about his state of mind. Nothing much has really changed.