Belfast Telegraph

Maradona movie: How adulation and organised crime transformed genius into drug-addled outcast

Diego Maradona.
Diego Maradona.

By Miguel Delaney

It was a routine that might have seemed someway rational at the time, but that in itself only reveals the type of insanity that was beginning to engulf Diego Maradona’s life.

At 27 years old in 1988, and at the very height of his abilities and fame, the Napoli playmaker would lower himself to the following “physical programme”.

Sunday: Serie A match.

Sunday night to Wednesday morning: continuous cocaine binge.

Wednesday morning to Saturday evening: “cleanse”, and sweat it all out.

Sunday: Serie A match.

And repeat. Until eventually — inevitably — he couldn’t repeat it any more.

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The revelation of that routine is one of many extreme contrasts that director Asif Kapadia concentrates on in his enthralling new documentary, ‘Diego Maradona’, and it pointedly comes at around the half-way point of the film. That’s also the turning point, when so many of the other contrasts become apparent.

Most visibly, the fairly lithe and athletic sportsman — a certain scrawniness symbolised by a scraggy beard — very quickly gives way to a bloated figure with a double chin.

The doting father meanwhile gives way to the uncaring philanderer, unwilling to recognise his son, Diego, but whose own frightened daughters barely recognise him when he comes home as high as the Azteca Stadium.

The “god” — to quote pretty much all of Napoli during most of his time there — becomes “the devil”, or “lucifer”, to quote the Italian media after the controversial 1990 World Cup semi-final.

The genius footballer proclaimed the greatest ever finally becomes an outcast who tests positive for cocaine.

He leaves Napoli alone, having arrived to crowds of 86,000 and relentless, suffocating attention.

That is also the point when “Diego” — that “wonderful boy with insecurities” — fully becomes “Maradona”, a personality created “to face all the demands” of his life, who “couldn’t show any weakness”.

This split-personality thesis, and those quotes, come from Fernando Signorini, the fitness trainer charged with getting Maradona fit for both the 1986 and 1990 World Cups.

He probably spent as much time with the player as anyone, so it is an informed idea eagerly picked up on by Kapadia.

Maradona himself is said to reject that thesis, but it’s difficult to see how he could reject much else in the film.

Kapadia offers a hugely sympathetic view of his subject, presenting him as a humble victim of extreme circumstances — and exceptional talent.

It is thereby close to a tragedy, which spares the man himself more specific scrutiny of his own actions.

In doing so, it also puts forward an explanation as to why Maradona may not have actually fulfilled that talent, at least by the modern game’s standards of hyper-excellence.

That is suggested by the fact the film really only focuses on five years of his career, at Napoli, between 1986 and 1991.

It was in that period he won five of a mere eight career trophies, and all of his major ones — a World Cup, his only two domestic titles, one Uefa Cup and the Italian Cup.

The prestige of Mexico 1986 aside, that is a record that pales next to Leo Messi’s extended excellence of 10 Spanish titles in 15 years, and four Champions Leagues.

It is a record that truly perplexes when the film relays footage of Maradona’s perfect football ability.

This, after all, was really why he was considered the greatest.

It’s made so clear to you that this was a player with unmatched control of a football.

That control is organic, making the ball a natural extension of his body that doesn’t so much bend to his will as flow with it.

That just gives rise to another contrast, and the most important of all.

It is made even clearer to you that, because of such ball control, almost everything else in Maradona’s life was entirely out of control.

There’s a poignant quote from the present-day Maradona, that is pointedly played at the start and end of the film.

“When you’re on the pitch, life goes away. Problems go away.

“Everything goes away.”

Maradona had to deal with more problems than most stars, which the film suggests is why he didn’t win everything.

Against the hermetically sealed world of today’s stars, he operated in near-total chaos.

That goes beyond the usual arguments about bad pitches, rules that favoured bad fouls and a tactical era that favoured defensive football, not to mention the lack of super-clubs. Maradona was after all not surrounded by super-talent disproportionate to most opposition, in the way that Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are.

He was instead surrounded by an awful lot of the worst influences, not least literal organised crime. That influence is initially illustrated with footage of his introductory press conference at Napoli. There, the very first question put to Maradona is about the Camorra, and how it grips the city of Naples.

The president of the club, Corrado Ferlaino, steps in and states the question is “so insulting I won’t answer it”.

He then expels the journalist from the stadium, to cheers.

It was a mere six years later that Maradona was similarly expelled from Napoli, and specifically due to the influence of the Camorra, as he tested positive for cocaine.

The film makes such a point of highlighting crime boss Carmine Giuliano’s presence in his life, and how that controlled Maradona. “He couldn’t refuse the Camorra.”

Hence that routine. They all wanted him. “Cocaine had him in its grip,” Signorini says.

The playmaker was 30 years of age at that point, a year younger than Messi is now.

It is simply impossible to get your head around the same happening in the present time, for so many obvious reasons.

The greatest player in the world, banned for 15 months for a scandal like cocaine addiction?! It is mind-boggling.

Players like Messi and Ronaldo may have won so much more, but the film strongly argues that Maradona’s meant so much more.

That is the emotional impact of winning trophies for the most histrionic and highly-obsessed fanbases like Argentina and Napoli, who had also been so starved of success.

The scenes of celebration with both are perhaps the most compelling in the film, showing just how adored — in the religious sense of the word — Maradona was.

“He was a demigod,” Signorini says. “It disturbed him psychologically… so ‘Maradona’ took over.”

One of the most striking scenes of the film is when Juventus supporters are shown openly deriding their southern compatriots.

It is described as “racism” by Maradona. It certainly goes beyond limits.

The city’s inhabitants are looked upon as filth.

The Neapolitans are told that they’re “colerosi” — cholera sufferers — who need to go home and wash themselves, preferably with the fire of Vesuvius.

“Wash them,” the Juventus fans sing. “Vesuvius, wash them with fire.”

Maradona responds with one of the finest goals of his career, an exquisite hooked free-kick that so satisfyingly beats Juventus. “I felt as though I represented a part of Italy that didn’t count for anything.”

Journalist Daniel Arcucci then argues that “fury, anger and fighting against adversity were fuel for Maradona”.

It all backfired at the 1990 World Cup semi-final. Argentina met the hosts in Naples, and Maradona too abrasively argued that the people of his adopted city do not feel Italian. It didn’t go down well. It went even worse when Maradona scored one of the penalties to knock Italy out. The dream was over, but not just for the World Cup hosts. The nightmare began for Maradona.

The Camorra, who once exploited him exactly because he was so adored, and thereby so indulged him to indulge themselves, now abandoned him.

The film argues this was when all his protections — from the press, from the judiciary — disappear. Eventually, his career disappears.

Maradona is shown making his own conscious decisions at other points, in one of the film’s more understatedly compelling scenes. It is when a genius reveals the mindset of genius.

Maradona explains how he had to change his game for the rigours of Serie A.

“Italian football was played at a different rhythm, rougher,” Maradona says, amid footage of him suffering the most brutal fouls. “I had to adapt and learn to play at a different speed.”

This is the player with arguably the greatest natural talent in history. And here he is having to think how to more calculatedly apply it. He did find that balance. He applied that talent. Another contrast. Another eventual consequence.

“The price was too high,” Arcucci argues of that very ability. This is the theme of the film.

And yet it does end on a hopeful note.

There is a theory that Kapadia actually wanted to emphasise Maradona’s deep desire for a male heir, and make this a central theme. It is instead only hinted at, through so much coverage of his many sisters and daughters, and then that final scene during the end credits.

The father — at last — happily meets and acknowledges his son. Maradona and Diego, finally reconciled.

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