“Too Loud and Too Furious”
Vicente Rodríguez Ortega (University Carlos III de Madrid)
To understand Diego Armando Maradona, football’s bad boy, ultimate outsider, and unprecedented genius, it is essential to simultaneously dig into the past and address the present. First, in Argentina he is what many of his fellow countrymen and women routinely label “un negro de la villa,” “a black from the ghetto,” a simultaneously racist and classist term that points to his origins—Villa Fiorito, a small city near Buenos Aires, one of the poorest areas in the country—and to the darker tone of his skin, a typical characteristic of the lower classes in Argentina, where fair skin often signifies belonging to the middle and upper classes. Second, we are today at the twilight of the Lionel Messi-Cristiano Ronaldo era of football, two supremely gifted players who have ruled the international panorama for the past fifteen years. Both Ronaldo and Messi are the ultimate professional football players, with scores of trainers, doctors, massage therapists, and nutritionists at their service, maintaining their bodies in top-notch condition to maximize their incredible potential and extend their careers. Maradona belongs to a different era, a time when life on the pitch was simply a part of a larger equation in which enjoyment, on and off the field, was the ultimate goal.
Asif Kapadia’s Diego Maradona (2019) re-utilizes the formula he had previously deployed in Amy (2015) and Senna (2009): never-before-seen archival footage, access to behind-the-scenes materials about the player, a narrative approach that methodically humanizes him by peeling layer after layer, and a series of voiceover interventions that provide insights from experts, journalists, insiders and acquaintances, offering their educated readings of that irreducible object of desire known as Maradona. Despite its merits—especially, the irrefutable interest of home videos of family gatherings and national team celebrations—the film reveals little new about the subject it approaches. Above all, it functions as a “Maradona 101 course” for English-speaking audiences and for a new generation of sports fans who were too young or had not been born during Maradona’s peak and have a distorted vision of the now coach through his exploits and physical and mental deterioration during the 2018 World Cup, as exemplified by his strange behavior in the stands, his heartfelt and histrionic media appearances as football manager, and his sideline antics , precisely the kind of content that football aficionados and Internet junkies devour as it crisscrosses a diversity of social media. In this regard, the film is a necessary intervention within the history of sports media in as much as it methodically approaches one of the key football players of the 20th century, giving us unparalleled access to his time in Naples.
Diego Maradona manages to escape the superficial conceptualization of Maradona as a broken toy, pointing to the fact that he has enjoyed (and keeps enjoying, I will add) the ride—that is, his ascension to the status of deity both in Argentina and Naples—and marks the unbreakable bond that his fans shall always maintain with their hero. He managed to win a World Cup with Argentina (something Messi has never achieved) and conquered two Italian championships, or Scudettos, for Napoli—something this club had not accomplished before or after Maradona’s tenure. What is more, he made the game utterly unpredictable; a short, chubby individual danced on the pitch unlike anyone else. His technique said it all. As a result, Maradona will always remain Maradona despite his late career fiascos, such as getting caught for doping during the 1994 World Cup (after training with Ben Johnson, of the Carl Lewis feud and Seoul doping scandal), his cocaine addiction, his connections with the Camorra, his trips to Cuba to allegedly detox boosted by prostitution and substance abuse, and his failures as a manager, most notably during his Argentina national team tenure, which would reach its apex through his infamous ¡Que la chupen! ¡Que la sigan chupando! / suck it! suck it!” statement to the media after a 2009 last-minute classification for the World Cup.
The documentary renders Maradona’s downward spiral into addiction as rather predictable, an almost inescapable development given the social, cultural and economic context that surrounded him by establishing the unbreakable ties between the Naples everyday, the Camorra, and the football club. Maradona had to negotiate this labyrinth. And, yet, he has managed to prevail against all odds, partially cleaning up his act and maintaining his commitment to stridently defying the status quo and those at the highest echelons of FIFA and UEFA, the men in the shadows that control them. Unlike Pelé, the Brazilian phenom who has always “played the hierarchical game,” becoming a FIFA poster boy, Maradona has always maneuvered in and out of the limits of legality and the politically incorrect. As Kapadia’s work captures, in 1990s Italy, Maradona did cross the line against a whole country when he contributed to eliminating Italy in the 1990 World Cup, the tournament they hosted. In other words, his erratic, excessive behavior and off-the-field issues were tolerated until he fought against Italy and their emotionally-fueled nationalism. After Italy was eliminated, the media viciously attacked him with headlines such as “Lucifer lives in Naples”; in newspaper La Repubblica’s poll, he was voted the most hated character in Italy. This development was part of an orchestrated plan to bring down Maradona, the documentary tells us, and the police and judicial authorities followed suit, prosecuting Maradona for prostitution and drug possession. Kapadia effectively de-accelerates his narrative at this point. He starts in the pitch with the penalty shootout of the World Cup semifinal between Italy and Argentina. Later he captures the media circus that devoured the football player and recuperates footage from a variety of media outlets to then slow it down, isolating Maradona in the frame, as a ghostly figure who faces a challenge his body and mind can hardly cope with, a dead end to his self-indulgent life in Italy, and his Camorra-fueled addictions to sex and cocaine. Patiently, the documentary guides spectators through Maradona’s physical and psychological debacle and his ultimate escape from Italy. His failure to pass a doping test and his subsequent ban from playing football was the last straw: Maradona’s journey in Naples had come to a conclusion. Without football, his psychological breakdown put in danger his very survival.
Smartly, Kapadia ends his intervention with Maradona’s fall into hell as his time in Italy came to an end. Forbidden from playing, Maradona’s addiction took over his body and mind. From then on, he would attempt to “come back” several times but would never reach the heights he touched at the peak of his career. And yet the devotion towards him has hardly dwindled. Although a cliché, this statement is obvious: Maradona is eternal, a football virtuoso and constantly scrutinized media character since he was a teenager whose greatest merit is perhaps to have prevailed. He is/was/will be a trickster, a God, a humble boy from the hood who has unremittingly spoken his mind. And above all, perhaps the most skillful player who has ever played the “beautiful game.” He lacks Messi’s consistency, Cristiano’s power or Pelé’s all-around dominance but one can fairly state the following: Maradona invented certain plays no one will ever manage to imitate. In doing so, his contribution to the history of football and culture is unique and inimitable. Off the pitch, he is fun, loud, obnoxious, crazy. In today’s hyper-professional sports environment, boredom rules. Once again, Maradona was/is/will be an outsider. This is where his exceptionality lies, precisely the kind of uniqueness Kapadia’s work brings to the fore.
” The Public | Private Life of Diego Maradona”
Robert Cavanagh (Emerson College)
In an interview with The Guardian, Asif Kapadia called Diego Maradona (2019) the third film in a “trilogy about child geniuses and fame,” following his previous documentaries, Senna (2009) and Amy (2015). Kapadia’s archival technique grounds all three of these films in the aesthetics of popular media, and they feel staggeringly comprehensive as visual and historical records. Kapadia excels at dropping his viewers into a specific time and place and persuading them that there is no aspect of his subjects’ lives that has gone undocumented. This, of course, is the essence of Kapadia’s project: an interrogation of the (im)possibility of life in the spotlight – a theme that is made literal late in the film as Maradona’s sister Maria reflects, “My brother, at the age of 15, he stopped having a life.” The film’s graphic title, Diego | Maradona, offers a visual representation of the challenges that came with superstardom, reflecting trainer Cesare Signori’s contention that the soccer legend split his personality into private (Diego) and public (Maradona) selves, a survival strategy that his celebrity demanded but which broke down under the weight of the media’s constant scrutiny.
As in Senna and Amy, Diego Maradona challenges viewers to consider the ethics and nature of fandom as well as celebrity. A recurring image in the film is of Diego looking unsettled as he wades through oppressively dense crowds of fans and press. This archival footage deepens our understanding of the devotion and desire that Maradona’s brilliant, expressive, and erotic physicality continues to inspire in football fanatics: the footage seems to correlate his physical exuberance with the intense need of crowds to touch him, and shots of Maradona weeping with joy are matched by shots of Napoli fans matching or even exceeding his emotion. This connection with the crowd gives Diego Maradona a political dimension: the film as a whole, particularly as it turns toward his vilification and fall from grace in Italy after the 1990 World Cup, frames “Maradona” as an iconic signifier whose popular appeal thrust him into hegemonic conflicts that defined his identity (the north-south divide in Italy, the conflict over the Falkland Islands) and ultimately drove him into personal and professional crisis.
In making Diego Maradona, however, Kapadia complicated his own project by actively involving his still-living subject in the making of the film. Kapadia had to negotiate with Maradona’s lawyers to acquire image rights before making the film, and the director has admitted that several of the film’s interview subjects only agreed to cooperate if the star was involved in the production. Maradona himself shapes the film’s narrative through his own voice-over comments, which Kapadia constructed from nearly 10 hours of interviews. In contrast, Senna and Amy profit from the deaths of their subjects, which loom over the films and underpin their tragic critique of spectacle. As a portrait of a still-living legend, Diego Maradona is less morbid and also less decisive: the ongoing saga of Maradona’s life makes his story harder to define and increases the sense that the film is participating in the same mythmaking that it critiques in the Italian sporting press.
When I showed the film to students in my Sports Media, Fandom, and Politics class in October 2019, Diego Maradona sharply divided opinion about whether the film was too forgiving or even exculpatory towards its star. This conversation (in the context of a class discussion on Ian McDonald’s (2007) “Situating the Sports Documentary”) largely centered on the film’s most significant subplot: Maradona’s denial of his out-of-wedlock sexual relationship with Cristiana Sanagra and paternity of her son, Diego Maradona Junior. Several students felt the film was too forgiving of Maradona for this, even though the film includes footage of Diego Junior as an infant sitting by himself while his father, across the city, celebrates Christmas with his other children. Maradona’s participation in the film – his voice over commentary and control over his image rights – lends some credence to my students’ critiques of the film’s narrative choices.
And yet, the editing of the film does suggest some strategic ambiguity on this question: just when it seems the closing credits are about to roll, after the title “Diego | Maradona” has appeared on screen for the second and final time, the film notes in a subtitled coda that Diego Maradona finally, after 30 years, acknowledged Diego Junior as his son in 2016. This title appears over footage of the father embracing his son—spectacularly, in front of yet another crowd of paparazzi. This staged moment, in which Diego publicly acknowledged the young man as his son, reflects Maradona’s willingness to use the media, which remains an important part of his life and career. Kapadia has hinted at this ambivalence about Maradona’s public face in his own comments about preparing to interview the legend: “There’s a particular character in the film who is quite trustworthy, they told me. ‘Just be aware you’re going to be in the presence of the world’s greatest liar.'” The contradictions that define Maradona are embedded in the footage of him moving through oppressive crowds that dominate the film: one second he looks genuinely joyful, a god lapping up the adulation of the faithful, the next he glances furtively to the side, and his smile shifts into nervous grimace.