I made mistakes, and I paid for them. But the ball is still pure: Maradona the antagonist
A camera follows a young Diego Maradona, so close on his boots that the reporter’s microphone often brushes against his back, as he walks around the perimeter of the Stadio San Paolo in Naples and stops in front of an army of press cameras. Maradona summons a specific reporter with his finger and the reporter immediately obliges – this is 1987 and in Naples, the poorest city in Italy where one footballer caused a social revolution by delivering their first league title, Maradona is seen as a reincarnation of God and not just His hand.
“Next time I see you snooping around my house, I will leave you with a bruised head,” Maradona says. “Listen Diego. You do your job and let me do mine,” replies the reporter, but Maradona pats the man’s cheek and walks away, his threat – “Don’t say I didn’t warn you” – trailing him as he enters the field for a training session.
All the cameras make Maradona their mise-en-scène. As he bounces a ball on the back of his heel, the press calls out questions about his various relationships — with a son born out of wedlock, with the Camorra Mafia in Naples, with cocaine. Maradona’s expression cannot be seen in this scratchy footage, but it must’ve been just as vacant as it is in the countless videos of him that exist from this era, when he wasn’t just the greatest footballer but also, by his own estimation, “the most followed and recorded person on earth”.
So telling in plot and so numerous are the Maradona recordings that Asif Kapadia, the Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker, simply assembled them and still managed to narrate his subject’s itchy relationship with fame in the mid-’80s, during the 11 months when the man led Argentina to the World Cup and put Napoli on the map. But the truth is Maradona was always surrounded by people, some among them ever-ready with a recording-device – handheld cameras before the turn of the century, mobile phones after – allowing chroniclers easy insight into his troubled life.
In one of the earliest videos of Maradona — with which Kapadia begins the claustrophobic story in Diego Maradona — a 12-year old boy with unkempt mane is asked how life has changed since being a football prodigy helped him and his family move out of the slums. “Well yes,” the boy says, “there are more of these interviews for sure.”
A lifetime later in 2019, interviewers gathered outside a hospital in Buenos Aires and a van slowed down enough for Maradona, now 59, to push a probing microphone away from his window, flip a finger and scream: “This is my answer to all your questions.”
In between those archives from his beginning and end, cameras followed him everywhere — into his bedroom as he taught his toddler abusive chants about Juventus, into the dressing room as he narcissistically danced to a song about himself in his briefs, into courtrooms before he was forced to flee Naples to avoid a jail term, and into a studio room where he arrived obese (shortly before suffering his first heart attack in 2004) and cried while talking about his addiction. “I’m losing by a knockout,” he said.
The cameras caught him in all avatars between saint and sinner, in all ages between old and young, in all sizes between fat and fit and in all emotions between darling and deplorable. But one trait remained a constant for the gaze of the ever-present lens in his life – his loneliness.
Football may be a team sport, but the pitch can be a desolate place for magicians like Maradona, who depend on lesser mortals to pass them the ball at the right time and place. This was best illustrated in the visceral documentary Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait, which showed how even the sublime Zinedine Zidane spent the better part of his time on the field sighing and making futile half-runs for Real Madrid.
But at least when the 17 synchronised cameras (trained solely on him for the sake of the documentary) were switched off at the end of the match, Zidane went back home to a partner he has been in a relationship with since he was a teen. Maradona did not manage to find this kind of stability.
This is when we meet him in the Netflix documentary series Maradona in Mexico, about his two-season spell as manager of Dorados, a team based out of Sinaloa – known for being home to the most powerful drug cartel in the world and its kingpin, El Chapo Guzman. “Don’t trust what the media says,” Maradona says after landing to a frenzy at the Culiacan airport. “I’m here only to turn around the fortunes of a football club.”
This Maradona cuts a pitiable figure – bow-legged, spine bent, a crutch supporting a barrel-shaped belly. His speech is slurred and his thoughts are incoherent, to the point where an ESPN crew talks tactic with him after a game and Maradona replies: “Aaaaa leeee aaaeee laaaa mmmm aaaa …,” and so on for about a minute, even punctuating his answer with thoughtful nods of the head.
In one training session he walks up to a large group of children who want his autograph and suddenly gets enraged. “If you shout ‘Diego’ again I will get the fuck out of here. I have nothing to lose, okay?” In another instance, during a must-win match for his side, he simply ups and leaves for the charter bus midway. “I’m suffering. I’m always suffering,” he tells the trailing camera.
But because he was still Maradona and Dorados was something of a clean slate, his presence inspired a bottom-placed team in the second division to make it all the way to the playoff finals, for a chance to qualify for Mexico’s premier league. They didn’t win, after a packed house at San Luis chanted “Maradona se la come”, which made him lunge at a group of chanting fans – who were recording the moment on their mobile phones -- and break down in the dressing room after the loss.
“Whatever good I may do, they will still remember me for the bad I’ve done,” he tells the club president later. Perhaps because the eye was forever on him, we were given, in the end, a human god. One who offered an absolution during his troubled time here: “I made mistakes, and I paid for them. But the ball is still pure.”
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