Maradona’s growing fame coincided with football becoming flush with riches. It has got richer, but generations after him have built mighty walls and fortresses to insulate themselves. Footballers live in a bubble today. Maradona came to Naples in search of peace but lived in full public glare
One consequence of revisiting the life of someone who has left a mark on your adolescence is that you tend to make unintended connections. As Asif Kapadia’s documentary ‘Diego Maradona’ opens to the shot of a car speeding through narrow Neapolitan streets, my mind replays a run that started from the right of the centre-circle at Azteca Stadium in June 1986.
It begins with Maradona facing his goal with two England players ready to pounce. He pirouettes and accelerates down the right, cuts left, shifts slightly to the right again, arrows into the six-yard box and peels away after scoring what was acknowledged as the goal of the 20th century.
“Intergalactic kite, what planet did you come from, to leave so many Englishmen in the dust?…Sweet Lord, thank you for the game of football, for Maradona, for these tears and for this, Argentina 2 England 0,” is what the commentator says on air.
The car in Kapadia’s film stops under the hulking arches of Napoli’s Stadio San Paolo where Maradona is being presented to the media in a room sweaty with anticipation. The room has a cement grille on the roof from where the terraces are trying to peer in. The first question to Napoli’s biggest acquisition is whether he knows that the Camorra, the crime syndicate, controls everything in this southern city. Maradona isn’t allowed to take it—club president Corrado Ferliano angrily expels the journalist—but context is set. Naples, Napoli, crime and unalloyed adulation intertwined with the extraordinary rise and fall of a genius who made magic with a football even after moving in with cocaine.
Maradona’s growing fame coincided with football becoming flush with riches. It has got richer, but generations after him have built mighty walls and fortresses to insulate themselves. Footballers live in a bubble today. Maradona came to Naples in search of peace but lived in full public glare.
Kapadia shows how Maradona is hemmed in by people—fans banging on the windows of his car, trying to drape an arm over his shoulder, Maradona alighting from a vehicle into a throng. Anger, fear, frustration are conveyed through close-ups of Maradona’s eyes. It explained why in 2008 when he came to Kolkata, Maradona initially refused to get out of his car at a teeming Mohun Bagan ground.
Because Boca Juniors travelled with him, Maradona was a hero before coming to Naples. In Abidjan in 1981, they even knew his nickname ‘Pelusa’ (given because he had fluffy hair). But it was due to his achievements between 1984 and 1991 at Napoli that his legend passed the test of time. Kapadia’s documentary is set here, his most productive period and also the beginning of his downfall.
Maradona helped Napoli win two Italian league titles (1986-87; 89-90) and to two second-place finishes, an Italian cup and the 1988-89 UEFA Cup. He helped build the team over the seasons, getting Ferliano to buy players including Brazilian Antonio Careca, his goal-scoring partner.
It was while at Napoli that the transformation of a man into a messiah happened. In 1986, with a team uncharitably referred to as ‘Maradona plus ten’, Argentina became world champions. Maradona’s pass put Jorge Burruchaga through for the winning goal in the 3-2 final win against West Germany. The West Germany defence was knackered, he says, and so was he. “But in such situations, the No. 10 has to show himself.” En route, he exacted ‘revenge’ over England for the Falklands war. Before Maradona, Napoli’s priority going into every Serie A season was to survive relegation. “He changed our mentality,” says Napoli and Italy defender Ciro Ferrara, who is from the city, in the film. Naples still has giant murals of Maradona, 59 this month, on buildings.
Back then, the Camorra had made Naples unsafe; the city was poor, had been hit hard by an earthquake in 1980 and Paolo Rossi, the 1982 World Cup star, had refused to live and play there. Napoli’s supporters lived with insinuations from fans of glamorous teams of the north—such as Inter Milan, AC Milan and Juventus—that they were sick with cholera and had never used soap.
Maradona thrives in such situations but he came because no other club wanted to pay Barcelona £6.9 million. Juventus president Giampero Boniperti had said Maradona wouldn’t get far with such a physique.
Barcelona was an experience that soured early; it was also where Maradona said he first snorted cocaine: “one shot and I felt like Superman.” Two seasons at Barcelona—who expanded their stadium from 90,000 to 120,000 because of Maradona—ended in a kickabout that ensued after the Spanish Cup final against Athletic Bilbao in 1984. Kapadia, who used only old footage to tell the story, shows Maradona, whose annual earnings of around $1.5 million made him one of the best paid athletes in the world, leaving the stadium in a torn Barca shirt.
“Napoli was an opportunity…I was a broken man…I started again from scratch,” says Maradona in ‘How We Won the Mexico ’86 World Cup.’ At 23, he was also broke because of a string of bad investments.
But the start wasn’t easy; Napoli lost 1-3 to eventual champions Verona on Maradona’s debut, the first of two defeats in three games.
Through a voiceover, Maradona says he realised the need to up his speed but to do that without his technique would be useless. Enter fitness coach Fernando Signorini.
“He couldn’t see a cow in a bathroom but knew a lot more than anyone else about physical training,” says Maradona (‘El Diego’). With 14 goals, Maradona was Napoli’s top scorer and they finished eighth.
Signorini says he realised that Diego was a shy, insecure mama’s boy who needed the image of a Maradona who, having provided for his family since he was 15, should have no weaknesses. Kapadia develops this through thoughtful use of visuals and voiceovers. “For Diego, I would go to the end of the world but for Maradona, I wouldn’t take a step,” says Signorini. Maradona replies: “But without Maradona, Diego would still have been in Villa Fiorito (the slum in Buenos Aires where he was born).”
Maradona gave Naples an identity and it reciprocated by putting him alongside Jesus Christ. From 1987 to 1990, Maradona scored 50 goals that, John Foot writes in ‘Calcio, a history of Italian football’, were never dull or ugly: “Chips from outside the box, perfect free-kicks, mazy dribbles, goals whilst lying on the ground.” And there were numerous passes from which Maradona’s teammates scored.
So when they won the league, their first, a banner was put up in a cemetery in the city, ‘you don’t know what you are missing.’
Napoli let Maradona be so long as he showed up for games. To be match-ready after binge drinking and cocaine, usually from Sunday to Wednesday…well, that’s Maradona. “On the pitch, your problems go away, life goes away, everything goes away,” he says.
Naples’ love for Maradona dipped when he initially refused to return in 1989-90, saying he wanted to join Marseille. Then, reports of intimacy with druglords became public, he was victim of a wiretap and a book claimed he had slept with 8000 women while in the city.
The affair ended when Italy lost to Argentina in the 1990 World Cup semi-final in Naples. Maradona had asked Neapolitans to support Argentina instead of Italy.
“Poor old Diego. For so many years we have told him repeatedly, ‘You are God, ‘You are a star’, ‘You are our salvation’, that we forgot to tell him the most important thing: ‘you are a man,’” said Jorge Valdano, who scored the second goal in the 1986 final (‘El Diego’).
On March 17, 1991, following a failed drugs test—curiously, he hadn’t been caught before—Maradona was given a 15-month ban. He left Naples alone and in tears.