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The Tragedy of Diego Maradona

A new documentary cuts through the myths about the Argentinian soccer star.

Alfredo Capozzi/HBO

There has always been a touch of the divine about Diego Armando Maradona. Despite the doping, the drugs, the slow slide into corpulent decadence, some supernatural aura still clings to our image of him. Even now, more than three decades after the fact, his two most famous goals, both against England in the quarterfinals of the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, have lost none of their mythic power. He dubbed the first the Hand of God, though it was actually Maradona at his most mortal: dirty, dishonest. The second has no name, the punctuation mark on a serpentine run past a series of red-faced English players, but it is otherworldly, miraculous, forever bathed in a nearly shadowless Mexican sunlight. He is so unbelievably fast, so clearly superior to the opponents lumbering in his furious wake, that it calls to mind the epithets that Homer bestowed on Achilles: swift-footed Maradona, breaking through men.

There is, too, among soccer aficionados and high-flown magazine writers alike, a tendency toward hyperbole when it comes to Maradona. The Argentinian television commentator Victor Hugo Morales, in the ecstasy of that brilliant moment in 1986, famously called Maradona a barrilete cósmico (“cosmic kite”). “What planet are you from?” he wailed, beseeching the galaxies for an explanation, before settling on a more conventional, if no less mysterious, answer: “Thank God for football, for Maradona, for these tears.”

But was Maradona really so unearthly? Watch the goal again. Even through the grainy haze of a YouTube video, you can discern that the English players are tired; even through the dewy fog of nostalgia, you must admit that defensive standards were a bit lax back then. Myths, at least the ones of living memory, are meant to be dispelled.

Myth-busting is the modus operandi of a new HBO documentary, Diego Maradona, directed by Asif Kapadia. We learn, from Maradona’s antics both on the soccer field and off, that he is all too human. We see, in gorgeous close-up footage from the 1980s, what it is like to be on the field with this small, slightly ridiculous fellow, whose black mane of hair is matted with sweat and whose chest puffs up like a pigeon’s. Yet, paradoxically, these humanizing touches only reinforce the original dichotomy of Maradonian myth, that he is both god and man, both savior and a sinner. In Kapadia’s treatment, Maradona is godly precisely because he is human. He is of a bygone era when celebrity athletes were still flesh and blood, not branded widgets in the lucrative industry of professional soccer—when they were still, if it’s not too naive a concept, innocent.

The movie begins with what would be unthinkable in the frenetic luxury marketplace that dominates soccer today, wherein obscenely expensive marquee players angle to be transferred to mega-clubs stacked with other obscenely expensive marquee players to maximize their chance of winning trophies. In 1984, Maradona, already considered the best player in the world, leaves Barcelona, one of the best clubs in the world, for lowly Napoli. As a director, Kapadia is not one to provide a lot of context. We are just there, viewing Naples’s mean streets through the grimy windshield of a car, as synthesizers loop over the soundtrack. We only get a vague sense of why Maradona left Barcelona (injuries, extracurricular scandals), though it’s clear he departed under a cloud of disgrace and disappointment, conveyed through footage of him lustily engaging in the kind of on-field brawl that is unique to soccer (instead of punching each other, they kick).

There is also the insinuation that Naples—poorer and scruffier than its fancy northern neighbors, home to the Italian powerhouses Juventus, AC Milan, and Inter—is a better cultural fit for a guy who grew up in the slums of Buenos Aires. (“A shitty little black kid from the slums,” as he is called in this documentary.) In the only extended flashback of a film that is otherwise tightly focused on the Napoli era, we see his abject origins in the shantytown of Villa Fiorito: dirt roads, shacks of corrugated iron. We see him become his family’s breadwinner, pulling them out of poverty by earning an apartment at the age of 15 that is close to the stadium of his first club, Argentinos Juniors. His beaming parents hug him as he grins sheepishly, a kid still, with the weight of their small universe on his shoulders. For such shining talent to emerge from such a hopeless place as Villa Fiorito—how could it not strengthen his family’s already ardent religious feeling? How could it not suggest that Maradona was born to save them?

He carries a similar burden in Naples, a city that is taunted by the fans of the northern teams for being backward. “You are the shame of the whole of Italy,” they chant. They unfurl banners that say, “Hello Cholera Sufferers,” depicting Naples as a godforsaken capital of diseased outcasts. “I felt as though I represented a part of Italy which counted for nothing,” Maradona tells Kapadia, in voiceover that runs throughout the movie over archival footage, some of which is from Maradona’s private collection. He is an underdog, a commoner, the people’s champion. His portrait is hung on the walls of Neapolitan homes, right next to the portraits of Jesus.

He is also still, in many ways, that grinning teenage kid who has been handed the keys to a new apartment. At his first press conference as a Napoli player, when a reporter asks what he knows of the Camorra, which wields some undisclosed yet obviously significant influence over the club, he retains a dopey look on his face, all childish ignorance.

His childishness is like a light that never goes out. No matter how many stupid, irresponsible things he does, he still manages, like some puppy, to elicit our forgiveness. He becomes drinking buddies with the leaders of the Camorra, earning their patronage and protection, but it’s only in good fun: “It all looked like something out of The Untouchables, Al Capone,” he tells Kapadia. He also grows close to Napoli’s ultras—the hardcore, thuggish fans who battle the hardcore, thuggish fans of other clubs—yet their sordidness, blending elements of fascism, racism, and mafia corruption, just slides off him like so much mud on the pitch. He womanizes; he parties too much; he dances like a low-rent version of John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever, all chest hair and gold necklaces. He is mired in the muck of Naples, yet somehow as pure as a saint all the same.

Then, finally, comes success. First is the 1986 World Cup, in which he almost single-handedly powers Argentina to victory. Then, the next year, just as improbably, Napoli wins the Italian league for the first time, vanquishing its foes in the north and its haters everywhere. The last elements of Maradona’s legend slide into place, and he is now a bona fide savior of both his motherland and his adopted home.

In these scenes Kapadia still insists on Maradona’s humanity, his realness, selecting footage of him partying with total abandon, at the center of frenzied, drunken chants. The day after he wins the World Cup he is filmed wasted on a bed, planting a kiss on a nude pin-up torn from a smutty magazine. Let us just say that it is hard to imagine Lionel Messi, Maradona’s heir as Argentina’s best player, doing anything so vulgar on camera, destroying his wholesome, carefully curated image as a soccer savant.

No one then or since has played the game quite like Maradona. His back is always rigidly straight, as if bolted into place. He runs with his chest out, his shoulder blades almost touching, while his sturdy legs work tirelessly. He is wide open to the world, expressing himself in the way only athletes and artists in the throes of inspiration can: “When you’re on the pitch,” he says, “life goes away.”

But life has a way of coming at you fast. Following his globe-conquering success, the split between “Diego” (the guileless man-child) and “Maradona” (the living legend) becomes too much to bear. He gets hooked on cocaine. His playing suffers. Though Argentina reaches the final of the 1990 World Cup in Italy, Maradona delivers a middling performance and is reviled as a washed-up villain. His fall from grace is epitomized by Argentina’s semifinal victory over the beloved home team in, of all places, Naples, where the crowd boos him and he can be seen shouting back, “Son of a bitch! You sons of bitches!”

Afterward, he is no longer welcome in Italy. The newspapers make hay of his scandals: “Maradona is a drug addict,” they say. “Maradona goes with whores.” He loses the protection of the Camorra and the ultras, and he runs into trouble with the law. He hits the bottom, forsaken by nearly everyone, seemingly a classic cautionary tale of a culture creating then destroying its own idol.

That is not, however, the moral of this story, or at least not the whole of it. Kapadia does not dwell much on the post-Napoli years, in which the indignities (performance-enhancing drug abuse, a hapless stint as Argentina’s national coach) mount, while the legend of 1986 only grows, as if sealed off from the life of Maradona himself. This makes for a wonderfully compact film that departs from the usual documentary formula, but it elides the changes that took hold of soccer just as Maradona’s playing days were coming to an end. This was when FIFA, the sport’s governing body, became the corrupt mafia-like organization we know today; when European clubs were seized by oligarchs from around the world, turning players into fungible investments instead of hometown heroes; when the players themselves became steeped in the ways of commerce and trade and celebrity. When they learned, in other words, how to play the game: how to get the transfer to the right club, how to pose for social media, how to manipulate, as best they could, the coverage of the all-seeing tabloids.

All these elements were present in Naples in the 1980s, just in cruder, more localized form. The tragedy of Maradona is that he was too simple to learn how to play anything other than soccer—and the sins for which he was punished, it turns out, were not really his, but ours.