Cocaine, car chases and Camorra: how Maradona’s chaotic time at Napoli destroyed him

He was at the centre of a storm of madness which was never entirely of his own devising and certainly not his own to control. 

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Fashioned from 500 hours of the subject’s own private footage, Diego Maradona is a new documentary by the director Asif Kapadia and the editor Chris King, who together made Senna (2010), about the racing driver, and Amy (2015), about Amy Winehouse. Both of those were exquisite. This may be better than either.

The film limits itself to the seven years Maradona spent at Napoli in Italy, but arguably finds the entire arc of his story riveted there. He arrives from Barcelona in July 1984, whereupon Naples, the poorest and most troubled city in Italy, suddenly finds itself hosting the world’s most expensive footballer. Maradona propels Napoli to their first Serie A title, shoving it in the face of the richer northern clubs – Juventus, the Milan teams, Roma – whose fans have been taunting Neopolitans for years (“Victims of cholera, sick with the plague, you never wash with soap” etc). One is reluctant to deploy the cliché about football being a religion, particularly in relation to countries such as Italy where the religion is, in fact, religion. Yet at this point Maradona becomes a near-deity in Naples and somebody hangs a banner on the city cemetery, informing those within: “You don’t know what you missed.”

In the middle of all this, he also finds time to captain Argentina to the World Cup in Mexico – literally handing-off England along the way and thereby inflicting a lasting national trauma. Here, England fans in Mexico are represented by a bloke in the stadium baring his arse in the direction of the Argentinians and another unleashing a stream of invective in the same direction. Which may seem reductive. On the other hand, it may not. For his part, Maradona simply points out that trickery – feinting to go one way, then going the other, for instance – is at the heart of football, which is “a game of deceit”. And hey, he might have added: it’s only a game.

Anyway, the seeds of Maradona’s fall are already sown. Naples places him at the centre of a storm of madness which is never entirely of his own devising and certainly not his own to control. Perhaps the dominant images we hold of Maradona on a football pitch convey an absolute self-possession: the barrel-chested strutting, the supreme high-chinned swagger, the luxurious celebrations and the operatic agonies. What Kapadia’s film humanely invites us to contemplate, in a succession of jostled close-ups, is Maradona’s intense personal discomfort from the very beginning – the hesitancy in the smile, the confusion and anxiety in the eyes about the chaos he stirs and where it might end.

And Maradona in Naples is nearly always in a crowd. Any journey beyond his front door seems to start with a riot, continue with a car chase, and end in another riot. Entering or leaving anywhere, a path must be beaten through a thicket of cameramen and well-wishers or less-than-well-wishers. In nightclubs and restaurants he always appears to be pinned in tightly at crowded tables. The pavements are impassable, the streets are narrow and there are always people beating on the roof of the escape vehicle.

There are no talking heads in this film (contemporary interviews, including with Maradona, are kept within the soundtrack) and accordingly there is no release from the moment. It recreates a state of near-permanent claustrophobia – life as a panic attack waiting to happen. And, as with Kapadia’s other two subjects, fame deprives Maradona initially of the room for manoeuvre and ultimately of the space to breathe.

Even on a pitch he is hunted. But here, at least, his genius can rescue him. He has what the best players are always said to have, which is the ability to create their own pockets of room, and on occasion seemingly whole acres in which to operate. Football enables him, in a way that life does not, to make space to run into. (Perhaps the only other public location where he could find freedom during this period was the dance-floor. Maradona, it is unsurprising to learn, was, in his prime, an excellent and floor-clearing dancer in a wide range of styles.)

It’s what happens off the field that’s the problem. The head of the Camorra crime syndicate tells Maradona, comfortingly and yet ominously, that “any problem you have is also my problem” – and goes on to prove it by becoming his main supplier of cocaine and prostitutes. Meanwhile an unacknowledged Italian lover gives birth to Maradona’s child and releases this news to the world in a television interview from the pillow of her hospital bed, the freshly-born baby swaddled and red-faced beside her as the reporter’s hand-held microphone bears in. It’s a scene from the least plausible afternoon soap opera known to man, except for the small detail that it’s entirely true. Among those watching at home: Maradona’s long-term girlfriend, at that point two months pregnant with their first child.

Eventually he is obliged to account in public for his cocaine use – meaning the life of Maradona finally has something in common with the life of Michael Gove, although Maradona’s drug habit is exposed by an anti-Mafia wire-tapping operation rather than semi-voluntarily in a doomed damage-limitation exercise involving the Daily Mail.

The Neapolitan mood turns terminally when he stops winning – and, worse, when he starts winning for the wrong team. Maradona scores in the penalty shoot-out that removes Italy from their own World Cup in 1990 and the quirk of scheduling which placed this game in Napoli’s stadium, combined with his misguided attempt to rally the people of Naples to Argentina’s cause, sees him further ruined as a traitor.

Eighty five thousand people turned out to see Maradona arrive in Naples. Seven years later when he leaves, he is practically alone. It’s a tale made for a movie. And here is the movie.

“Diego Maradona” is released on 14 June

Giles Smith is a New Statesman columnist and previously wrote for the Times.

This article appears in the 14 June 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The closing of the conservative mind