Diego Maradona’s time at Napoli is the stuff of legend but Asif Kapadia’s documentary got to the heart of a remarkable tale, explains Adam Bate.
“I expect peace. The peace I didn’t have in Barcelona.”
Diego Maradona found everything at Napoli. He was the genius behind their first Serie A title and won them a European trophy too. It was as a Napoli player that he lifted a World Cup and became a cultural icon. It was as a Napoli player that he lost a World Cup and his career as he knew it. Naples brought fame and glory, but it brought drugs and despair too.
He expected peace.
But he had everything but peace.
That was apparent from the outset. A crowd of 85,000 packed into the Stadio San Paolo on July 5, 1984. It was a rapturous welcome. The footage depicts a gladiator going into the arena. It was mayhem, a journalist thrown out of the frenzied press conference for daring to ask about the dreaded mafia, the Camorra. That was just the start.
Kapadia’s film, which was released in cinemas in June 2019, chronicles this fascinating period in the life of one of sport’s most controversial figures.
He has sifted through more than 500 hours of footage to produce a movie that is utterly immersive. The protagonists have been interviewed but there are no talking heads, their words merely accompany the images. It puts you at the centre of the storm and offers a window into a world of adulation that few have known.
Kapadia has produced acclaimed films about Ayrton Senna and Amy Winehouse, and readily admits that he fell in love with both during the filmmaking process. His relationship with his latest subject is more complex and it is easy to understand why.
Maradona is difficult to pin down, his life full of contradictions. A humble boy from the slums of Villa Fiorito who became an extrovert genius. A family man who betrayed his wife. A person obsessed with football who nevertheless succumbed to the distractions.
Fernando Signorini, his personal trainer, seeks to explain that away by talking of two men, Diego and Maradona. The former, he would run to the ends of the earth to help. The latter, he would run to the ends of the earth to avoid.
He talks of a life both “tremendous and terrible” and both aspects are laid bare. “Maradona was the character he had to come up with,” says Signorini. The man himself replies: “If it wasn’t for Maradona, I would still be in Villa Fiorito.”
Even his presence in Naples was a contradiction. This was the world’s most expensive player signing for a modest club in the poorest city in Italy, one in the midst of a financial crisis. “I asked for a house, I got a flat,” he complains. “I asked for a Ferrari, I got a Fiat.”
In a sense, he could be talking about his team-mates too because life did not go as planned on the field either, at least at first. Maradona’s unique dribbling skills and extraordinary balance are beautifully captured but so too is the brutal defending of a bygone era.
Maradona thrived in this adversity but the extent to which the people of Naples were regarded as second-class citizens is likely to shock modern audiences. The unwashed. The peasants. The cholera sufferers. This is how rival teams welcomed Napoli in banners and chants.
Naples was described as the sewer of Italy. The nearby volcano Vesuvius, source of the famous eruption that once buried Pompeii, was encouraged to wash them all with fire.
No wonder there was such joy when reigning European champions Juventus were beaten at San Paolo in that second season. The news reports of the day talked of heart attacks in the stands. Maradona was already a hero, but he was on the way to becoming something more.
What this film does not shy away from are the murkier elements of Maradona’s world. He became a father after impregnating his sister’s friend only to deny it in the media and to his girlfriend, shunning his son for three decades. It seems astonishing that these personal issues were ongoing as he headed off to Mexico ’86 to become a true legend of the game.
The same can be said of Maradona’s relationship with Carmine Giuliano of the Camorra, an Al Capone figure in the eyes of Maradona. “It was like being in a movie,” he says. It was Giuliano who hastened his addiction to drugs – “one hit and I felt like Superman” – and it was through that cocaine abuse that they were able, it seems, to control him.
It was to bring about his downfall in the end but the ascent is also there in all its stupendous glory. What he calls the “symbolic revenge” over England after the Falklands War that featured his infamous handball and the outrageous solo goal that followed it.
There is his brilliance against Belgium and the pass through to Jorge Burruchaga for the goal that won the tournament in the final against West Germany. “These are things that you do not dream of,” says Maradona.
The Serie A success of the following season was, according to him, “the most important celebration” of his life. It marks the film’s high point.
Maradona’s team-mate Ciro Ferrara describes that 1987 title win as “the social redemption of our city” and the scenes in Naples remain remarkable to witness. The party went on for two months. A banner outside the cemetery read: “You don’t know what you missed.”
As for Maradona, the iconography was out of control. He was depicted as the baby Jesus. Even the nurse taking his blood tests, stole a vial and put it in the church. “It was like he chose us, he saved us,” recalls one observer.
“He became a god.”
He was Diego no more. Maradona took over.
There was still success after that, including victory in the 1989 UEFA Cup win, but this was the end of the beginning. “I had nothing left to do,” says the man himself. “I had made the people happy. I wanted to end my career somewhere calmer.” He asked to leave but was denied by the president, who now admits: “I was Maradona’s jailor.”
A second title followed in 1990 but by this point Maradona was partying from Sunday to Wednesday, his cocaine addiction rampant. He would come home high and lock himself in the bathroom because he was afraid to be around his own children. The sciatica in his back necessitated five injections just to get him out on the pitch.
“I felt he started to look for an escape,” says ex-wife Claudia Villafane.
If the 1986 World Cup had been the making of Maradona, the 1990 version on Italian soil would prove his undoing. In particular, a schedule that took his Argentina team to Naples to take on hosts Italy. Maradona stressed his commitment to the Neapolitan people and solicited their support but his words were interpreted as divisive by the rest of Italy.
When Argentina succeeded in a penalty shootout, Maradona scoring his spot-kick, it was too much for a distraught nation to accept. “I am still angry with Diego,” admits Ferrara. A poll in La Repubblica called him the most hated person in Italy. The Argentina anthem was booed before the World Cup final but only one man who was the target of their ire.
The descent is chronicled through excerpts from a wire-tapping operation into the Camorra’s activities that led to Maradona’s sentencing, but it was the one-year ban from football following a drugs test that really brought his time in Naples to a close. “When I arrived there were 85,000 there to greet me,” notes Maradona. “When I left, I was alone.”
Though the film only touches on what followed, it could be argued that he has never been the same since. “When you are on the pitch, problems go away,” he once said. “Everything goes away.” But the ban took that from him. “They took away his life,” concludes Villafane.
It plays out as a tragedy in the true Shakespearean sense of the word – a character whose flaws lead to their downfall. The peace, it never came. In the sense that his woe was often self-inflicted, it is not always easy to sympathise. But the tale is wonderfully told and gets close enough to its source to provide the necessary empathy without losing any sense of wonder.
Will there be another Maradona?
The debate about who is the greatest footballer of them all will rage forever, but what is certain is that in the sanitised modern game, there will never be another life like Maradona’s.