Monday, November 30, 2020

Match of the deity

A bouffant-haired world superstar making a dramatic and unexpected move to an unfashionable club starved of success based in a city that lives and breathes football? A player whose arrival was met with mass hysteria and who subsequently went on to rouse the sleeping giant and achieve god-like status among supporters? You'll have to forgive this blinkered Magpies fan for watching Asif Kapadia's superb documentary film Diego Maradona and seeing strong parallels between the Argentine's switch to Napoli and Kevin Keegan signing for Newcastle.

That said, Keegan grew up in Doncaster, not the slums of Buenos Aires; he arrived on Tyneside in the twilight of his career, rather than in his prime, and only inspired promotion back to the top flight, not his club's first ever title wins; and he never became reliant upon the Camorra for cocaine - as far as I know, at least.

Asked about the film by the Guardian's Tim Lewis in 2017, when it was still in production and some way from release, Kapadia said: "In my mind, this is the third part of a trilogy of child geniuses and fame, and the effect it can have, and what they mean to their country and what they mean to people. Again, another person in various ways who felt like he was fighting a system". The director's two previous subjects had been Ayrton Senna and Amy Winehouse, and the finished product certainly realises that vision.

The football footage amply illustrates the dazzling skill, sublime close control and low centre of gravity that enabled Maradona to glide past opponents as though they weren't there - his World Cup Goal of the Century strike against England in 1986 the most obvious case in point. Little wonder that frustrated defenders regularly felt the need to remind him of their existence with kicks and elbows - including in that quarter-final (something that Sun-reading meatheads and gammony England keepers still foaming at the mouth about Maradona's first goal that day would do well to acknowledge).

When he subsequently referred to "the hand of God", he wasn't necessarily implying divine intervention. After all, he had a sizeable ego by this point, and was already well on the way to becoming a deity himself in Naples, bringing the Serie A trophy to the city for the first time at the end of the following domestic season.

But it couldn't last. Kapadia's film traces Maradona's subsequent fall from grace, which was sealed in 1990 when Argentina knocked Italy out of their own World Cup on penalties in Napoli's Stadio San Paolo - the Argentine having made the fatal pre-match misjudgement of overestimating the country's north/south divide and urging Neapolitans to support his national side rather than their own.

Maradona emerges as the archetypal tragic hero, a central protagonist who was both beset by circumstances beyond his control and the victim of his own flaws and weaknesses. Trapped within a pressure-cooker environment in which he was burdened with expectation and treated like public property, he cracked, succumbing to the temptations of drink, drugs and sex in the pursuit of respite and escape.

Personal trainer Fernando Signorini talks about a split personality: Diego as a kid with insecurities and Maradona as the character he had to create in order to cope "with the demands of the football business and the media" - not to mention the fact that he had been supporting his whole family since the age of 15. In its depiction of a fragile individual thrust into the intense glare of the spotlight, the documentary is undoubtedly a sympathetic portrayal, paying scant attention to the collateral damage his behaviour and addictions caused (not least to his partner Claudia Villafane and their two children). It's hardly the first biopic to be guilty of such generosity towards its subject, though.

Maradona's rise-and-fall story follows a familiar narrative arc and is in many ways an easy one to tell and to sell - but, with the aid of judiciously selected archive footage and some insightful commentators, Kapadia does so with skill and style.


Dave Angel said...

Ben, lovely stuff. I think the original Signorini quote is revealing, and explains Kapadia's eschewal of the one word naming mechanism he used for the other documentaries in the trilogy. He said: “I would follow Diego to the end of the earth; I wouldn't follow Maradona to the corner.”

For me, the best moment in this fantastic film is when Maradona says: "Football is deception." Watching him play - watching him move the ball from one foot to the other, change his body shape, shift his weight - all of it was done to fool his opponents - make them believe he was doing one thing when he intended to do another. No wonder almost the entire England team are dropping around him like fainting goats during that hallucinatory run in 1986 (surely, the greatest individual goal in the history of the game?).

I'd also take some issue with your assessment of Maradona's appeal to the Neopolitan fans to support him and his team rather than the Italian national team in the World Cup semi-final in 1990. To call this a "fatal pre-match misjudgement" may be overstating it - there's been plenty written about the fact that the crowd that night was subdued - a symptom perhaps of the cognitive dissonance of watching their God play against them, whilst being expected to support a national side who - by and large - mocked and loathed them in any other circumstance (who can forget the Milanese chant of "Wash them with fire"?).

Ben said...

On the film title - absolutely, that's a point I meant to make.

Yes, "Football is deception" is a fantastic quote. As is the image of England players dropping "like fainting goats". Certainly that goal deserves better than to be described (as Jen did) as "a man running with a football while some other men fall over".

Maradona undoubtedly had cause to believe that the Neopolitan fans would back Argentina - perhaps, in light of the history/context and especially those chants, it's more surprising that they didn't. But they didn't - and, with the Italian tabloid press no doubt fuelling the post-match fires, so his relationship with them was irrevocably soured.