The city where Diego Maradona rose from the dead
Diego Maradona didn’t know it would be his last match for Barcelona. It was the final of the Spanish Cup against Athletic Bilbao in May 1984, but from the start, it went badly: he was relentlessly hacked at by the opposition, including a man not long christened “the Butcher of Bilbao” for a tackle on Maradona that almost ended his career, and racially abused by the crowd. On the final whistle, Barça had lost 1-0 and he received more taunts, this time from the Bilbao players. Now he cracked. He launched an extravagant kung-fu kick at one of them and knocked another out cold with his knee. The brawl escalated and became one of the most infamous in football history. Eric Cantona’s 1995 lunge into the crowd looks tame in comparison. King Juan Carlos and more than half of Spain watched as Maradona, his shirt in tatters, was dragged off the pitch.
It wasn’t the first problem Maradona, then 23, had encountered at Barcelona, either. The club chastised him for going out too much. He replied that it was none of their business. He took cocaine for the first time in a nightclub there. “One hit,” he remembers in Asif Kapadia’s engrossing new feature-length documentary Diego Maradona, “and I felt like Superman.” The Argentine was brilliant, no question, but he had to go. The question was: who would have him?
The answer was SSC Napoli. Back then, Napoli were not one of the world’s great teams – they had never even won a league title. The club entered each season more content to dodge relegation than chase honours. “It was the equivalent of [Lionel] Messi going to Nottingham Forest,” says Kapadia, whose previous films Senna and Amy won three Baftas and an Oscar and revolutionised feature documentaries. “But Nottingham Forest have won something. Let’s say Plymouth. It’s that thing where if you wrote it down, no one would believe it, because it will never happen again.”
Maradona didn’t have any choice: Napoli were the only club willing to pay his fee of £6.9m, then a record. On the flight to Italy, he told reporters of his hope for a fresh start in Naples. “I expect peace,” he said, “the peace I didn’t have in Barcelona. But, above all, respect.”
Looking around Naples today, searching out some of Maradona’s old haunts with Fiammetta Luino, a translator and archivist on Kapadia’s film, the city has a lot going for it. In the 17th and 18th centuries, it was renowned as the place to study opera. Naples has long been home to some of the world’s most skilled tailors. It is one of the great food destinations: a city that maybe didn’t invent pizza but perfected it and one that certainly pioneered the delicacy that is fried pizza. It is poorer and, yes, dirtier than Italian cities in the north, but also wilder: more primal, less buttoned-up. Its dialect is theatrical and full of passion. Children bomb down dark alleys on scooters, eschewing helmets as a point of pride. People you’ve just met buy you coffee. Under your feet are tunnels used by gangsters to avoid detection. Maradona might be the first person in history who came to Naples searching for “peace”.
This was especially true in 1984 when he arrived. Four years earlier, the Irpinia earthquake had killed about 2,500 people and left 250,000 homeless in the region. In the aftermath, the local Camorra crime syndicate had become more powerful than ever: they hogged the funds set aside for rebuilding the area and tightened their grip on the construction industry. A turf war started that ran throughout the 1980s. “Every day in those years, there was a murder in Naples,” Simone Di Meo, an investigative journalist who specialises in the Camorra, tells me over a bicerin in the very grand Galleria Umberto I in central Naples, a location picked because it is open and very public, something a man with powerful enemies has to keep in mind. “So that gives you an idea of the scale of the fighting.”
In those years, Di Meo says, “Naples was a city that lived waiting for Sunday” – that is, match day. Opposition fans would wave bags of rubbish in their direction; those were the nice ones. The nasty ones sang songs with lyrics such as: “Sick with cholera. Victims of the earthquake. You never washed with soap. You are the shame of the whole of Italy!”
Luino says: “In Naples, there is a strong belief in the idea of a saviour who comes from outside the city and redeems the people who live there. It all started with San Gennaro, the patron saint, who saved the city when Vesuvius was erupting by changing the direction of the wind.”
Kapadia agrees. “Diego and Naples are perfect for one another,” he says. “It’s almost like he is Neapolitan and he found his home. So he has this awful time in Barcelona and he left there, he’s rock bottom and he goes to Naples and suddenly there’s all this love. And he’s like, ‘Perfect!’ The problem is that you can’t switch it off: the touchy-feeliness, the intensity of the place, the absolute obsession with football.”
A troubled, charismatic man lands in a troubled, charismatic city. Maradona would spend seven years in Naples, the longest and most fecund period of his career: he won two league titles, various cups, including the 1986 World Cup with Argentina, and proved definitively that he was the great player of his era. But it was also disastrous for him personally: he became mixed up with the Camorra, had chaotic personal relationships, multiple infidelities and developed a full-blown addiction to cocaine.
“It does go wrong there,” Kapadia goes on. “Diego already had that tendency of excess: when he goes out dancing, he’s going to keep going dancing. If he’s going to go partying, he’s going to party. If he’s going to do something, he’s going to keep doing it. He does everything to the max.”
Kapadia was approached about making a film about Maradona in 2012. A producer, Paul Martin, had unearthed hundreds of hours of candid footage shot on U-matic video between 1981 and 1987. Jorge Cyterszpiler, Maradona’s agent, imagined they would make a film of it, but he was fired before he could realise the project. Kapadia liked the idea of finishing the job Cyterszpiler started, but he’d not long completed Senna, his documentary on the Brazilian F1 driver Ayrton Senna, and he felt it was too soon to return to sport and South American tragi-heroes. He made Amy, about Amy Winehouse, instead.
In 2015, with an Oscar and Bafta for Amy, to add to the two Baftas Senna won – and also with the commercial heft of having made the two highest-grossing British documentaries ever – Kapadia returned to Diego Maradona. By this stage, his signature style was well-established (and widely emulated). He made immersive, densely researched films that eschewed talking heads in favour of archive footage and previously unseen home videos. Action is slowed, sound effects heightened. He describes his films as “mosaics” and compares them to pop art; this approach to documentaries, Kapadia says, owes more to the fact that his early films were art projects made at the Royal College of Art than a radical desire to subvert the genre.
Kapadia, who is 47 and from north London, calls Diego Maradona the final instalment of a trilogy. Personally, it was the hardest of the three films to make, both practically and emotionally. “He’s a really hard one to pin down, Diego,” says Kapadia. “It’s the equivalent of trying to nail jelly on the wall, because the minute you think you’ve got something, he’ll do something else. So it’s been a really challenging project to try to get the essence of this man. In a way, Senna was consistently charismatic and incredible, amazing and eloquent. I just fell in love with Ayrton Senna and people who see the film fall in love with him.
“Amy is like the inverse,” he continues, “because she was amazing, but the whole thing around her was a mess. And she was lost. And she needed love and she needed attention and sadly everyone that she went to, or who went to her, seemed to be not great for her. And Diego is a bit of both. Wherever he goes, he also creates trouble. If there isn’t trouble, he’ll make it or he’ll search it out. But I like him… I don’t know if I ever fell in love with him, the same way I did with Amy and Ayrton Senna, because he’s not easy to love. But I do feel for him.”
Early on, Kapadia realised he had enough original material – and a compelling-enough protagonist – to make a long film for television, similar in scope to OJ: Made in America, which ran for seven hours 47 minutes and won the Oscar for best documentary in 2017. A story that would follow Maradona from his upbringing in one of the poorest, most miserable slums of Buenos Aires and tell how a player with no physical advantages became the best in the world, through his relentless controversies to the present day. But, ultimately, Kapadia decided against working with a TV channel or streaming platform and Diego Maradona is a tight two hours 10 minutes and will be released first in cinemas.
“The honest truth is: I’m old-fashioned, I’m a movie guy,” he says, laughing. “I love going to the cinema. I love being engrossed in a dark space with a group of people and experiencing something collective. I know also that I’m not the best person at watching 10 hours on TV. I fall asleep, I check my email, I’m on Twitter. I’ll suddenly have an urge for chocolate or a biscuit or something. I’m human, I’m not able to do it. I don’t have the time to watch 10 hours on every subject. I never get to the ending of most of them. For me, it’s that Mark Twain line: ‘I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.’”
Besides, Kapadia had started to notice a pattern in Maradona’s behaviour: “death and resurrection”, as the Argentinian’s biographer Daniel Arcucci calls it. It happens at every club he played for, in every job he’s had since he retired. “His life is a series of cycles,” says Kapadia. “He goes somewhere. He’s a great hero. He does something brilliant. They love him! It all goes a little bit wrong. Someone tries to control him. He says, ‘Don’t tell me what to do!’ It ends in disaster. He leaves. He’s rock bottom. His career’s over. He goes somewhere else, starts again. He’s a great hero…
“I spend a lot of time with my brilliant team making these films. Because we’ve done all the work for you. I’m not gonna expect you to watch 10 hours of it. I want you to watch the essence of it. And his time in Naples was the greatest cycle of Diego Maradona’s life.”
Twenty-eight years after he left Naples, Diego Maradona still looms large in the city. He features on two giant murals that cover the sides of buildings: one was completed in the 1980s and is given regular touch-ups; the other was done in 2017 by the street artist Jorit Agoch. Maradona’s face appears everywhere on scarves and posters; in Bar Nilo, in the old town, there are a couple of strands of his hair behind glass like a holy relic. The owner tells me that he flew to Milan to watch Napoli play and happened to be on the same flight home as the team. As he walked past Maradona’s seat, he scooped up the hair and popped it in a cigarette packet.
“Naples is full of votives for saints and I played on that idea,” he says. “Though, for sure, he’s not a saint to you English people.”
The bar owner is, naturally, talking about the “Hand of God” incident: the quarter-final of the 1986 World Cup that Argentina won 2-1 against England, with Maradona contributing both the most sneaky and sublime of goals. For Maradona, scoring with his fist was never a particularly big deal – he’d done it ever since he was a kid, in fact – but the 1986 World Cup did represent a significant moment for him: it was his chance, he felt, to prove that he was the best player in the world. Some felt he arrived in Mexico in the shadow of France’s Michel Platini and Brazil’s Zico, but after leading a mediocre Argentina to victory, the debate was settled.
“We tend to think he’s always been the best player, but he wasn’t,” says Arcucci, who has interviewed Maradona since the 1980s. “He became the best player in Mexico in ’86. And if you want to summarise the whole Maradona myth, you can do it through this game against England. At the time, he said it was nothing but a football game, but that was a lie. Ten years after, he confessed that it was a revenge, that he was taking revenge for the soldiers who’d died in the Falklands war.”
At this year’s Cannes film festival, where Diego Maradona had its premiere, footage of his second goal, where he ties the England team in one giant knot, received a spontaneous ovation. “Everyone started clapping,” recalls Kapadia, before musing, tongue in cheek: “I wonder if that happens a lot in England? We’ll see.”
Once Maradona had left Napoli in 1991, after ignominiously failing a drugs test, neither the player nor club returned to the same heights. “You have to bear in mind that Naples is a city that eats up – devours! – its own heroes, its legends,” explains Di Meo. Not long after Maradona’s departure, Napoli were relegated and then declared bankrupt. Maradona, meanwhile, moved into management after retiring, with reliably mixed results. He is currently the boss of a second-division Mexican team, Dorados de Sinaloa, who he led to the brink of promotion this year before losing a second-leg, winner-takes-all match in extra time. “Dorados is my home,” he said recently, echoing comments he’s made regularly throughout his career. “Dorados is pure life.”
Even now, Maradona remains reliable tabloid material. A couple of weeks ago, he was reportedly detained at Buenos Aires airport, returning from Mexico, and presented with a charge to appear in court: his ex-girlfriend Rocio Oliva claims that he owes her £5m. In March, he finally acknowledged the paternity of three children born in Cuba, where he went to treat his cocaine addiction between 2000 and 2005; the 58-year-old is now the father of eight.
For Kapadia, it’s all another round of “death and resurrection”. “If you understand where he’s from, then you will look at him differently,” he says. “Even if you’re the most ardent, hardcore England fan who was in the stadium in Mexico in 1986, who felt ripped off. You look at him and think, ‘Man, how can you survive that experience? How can anyone come out the other end?’ And what I’ll give him: he’s a street fighter because he’s still going. The number of times he’s been knocked down, the number of times he’s literally died! And he comes back again.
“While we were in Cannes someone said, ‘He’s come back more times than Jesus!’ But Jesus has got nothing on him: this guy dies and comes back, dies and comes back every few years. He’s amazing.”
Diego Maradona is released on 14 June