Oscar winner's film on soccer legend reveals the good, bad and twisted in footballer's story
There have been few figures in sport quite as compelling as Diego Maradona.
Born dirt poor in Argentina, by his teenage years he was already recognized as a budding star of soccer (or football, if you prefer). His footwork was sublime, his speed blazing, his ability to outsmart and outmaneuver defenders dazzling.
In faraway London, young future filmmaker Asif Kapadia kept an eye on Maradona's exploits.
"I am a football fan so I was aware of him growing up just because I’d watch the World Cup," the Oscar-winning director recalls. "There were rumors about him quite early on about how he was going to be the best player in the world."
Kapadia's new documentary Diego Maradona shows how the attacking midfielder fulfilled his promise, but along the way became embroiled in controversy and scandal.
"So much drama," Kapadia says of the Maradona story. "It''s like so much chaos."
There is no one quite like him, a person who got to those sort of heights and those sort of depths.
Diego Maradona opened today in theaters in New York (Cinema Village) and the LA area (Laemmle Glendale). It debuts on HBO October 1.
The film begins in 1984, the momentous year when Maradona was unveiled to rapturous fans in Naples, Italy, as the new star of the local club after his transfer from Barcelona (for a then record fee of $10 million). Napoli had never enjoyed success; both the team and its Neopolitans themselves were derided by Northern Italians as sewer-dwellers. Winning a title must have seemed like the impossible dream.
Against all odds, Maradona lifted Napoli to championships, earning the adoration of fans.
"It was like he saved us," remembers one of them. "He became a god."
He was a god in his native Argentina too, especially after he led his country to the World Cup title in 1986, with a victory over West Germany in the final. Maradona was on top at that point, but the seeds of his destruction were being sown, as Kapadia shows in the film. Diego made something of a pact with the Devil in Naples, falling under the sway of the Camorra, Napoli's notorious underworld. At first his Camorra friends provided security. Then they provided drugs. In return, the soccer king hung out with them and did favors, like making personal appearances to help launch various businesses.
Not even a severe cocaine addiction to keep Maradona from performing brilliantly on the field. But what ultimately proved his ruin was playing for his native Argentina in the 1990 World Cup - hosted on Italian soil. In a fateful match played in Naples, Diego led his team to victory over Italy. The country largely turned against him and Maradona's descent afterwards was rapid and complete. A 15-month ban for failing a drug test in 1991 pretty much put an end to his career.
What does Maradona have to say about all this? Kapadia did secure a trio of interviews with the soccer star, who is now 58. But the director says his subject was not the most reliable witness to his own story.
"He isn’t necessarily ever going to look back and say, 'Oh, I made a mistake at that point in my life and I regret that,'" Kapadia comments. "That’s not who he is, just never will be. So that’s been quite an interesting challenge to make a film about him because you kind of go with the ride and at times there are things that he does which I would just never, ever, ever agree with, never want to be a part of."
Kapadia interviewed Maradona in Dubai, where he had secured a coaching position. The logistics were complex, especially given the language barrier between the Spanish-speaking star and English-speaking director.
"I had my computer open on Facetime where I had two of our team in London listening in on the interview who could type if there was anything that was said that was inaccurate or if I had a question," Kapadia explains. "The idea was to make it seem totally natural to Diego like he and I talking. I’m getting live translation in my ear so there is no wait and no delay. But also if he goes off on a tangent... and it’s irrelevant I can interrupt him because I know I’m only going to get 90 minutes with him. So that’s how the kind of process developed."
Kapadia says there were several things he wanted Maradona to address, some of them about football, others about his personal life, including serial infidelity and fathering a child that he denied siring.
"The difficult questions were going to be about women, his relationships, the fact that he had a kid that he just did not recognize, the drugs problem, the addiction to cocaine, where it started, how it happened, and his relationship with the underworld," Kapadia notes. "Playing in Italy, his family... As well as, in England everyone is obsessed with the "Hand of God" goal" [that knocked England out of the 1986 World Cup.
As with his previous two feature documentaries, Senna (2010) and Amy (2015) (the latter film, about singer Amy Winehouse, won Kapadia his Oscar) the director uses contemporary interviews as audio only. The entire visual landscape of the film comes from archival material.
"There are far easier ways to make films than to make it entirely out of archive," Kapadia observes. "So the editing is key, the production is key to give us the time for me to do the work and the research... The sound design team and the composer, making it sound as great as possible -- that’s how you make something into a great movie, I think."
Ultimately, his goal is not to judge the subject of his film, he says, be it the late Formula 1 race car driver Ayrton Senna, the late chanteuse Winehouse, or Diego Maradona.
"My job is to show the audience what is going on with them - what it is like to be Maradona, what it is like to be Senna, what it is like to be Amy, not my opinion of them," Kapadia insists. "You have to try to say, well, what would they think, what would they feel, what are they experiencing, what is their point of view? A lot of people don’t seem to get that my job is to take myself out."
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on Deadline.com, CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and in Documentary magazine.