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'Diego Maradona' revisits the tangible god in devil's disguise

The dominant emotion while watching the Asif Kapadia film Diego Maradona was slack-jawed astonishment.

It wasn't about the details of what was revealed. For my generation, Maradona's career and afterlife had been followed to obsessive degree, long before the age of the internet. Newspaper articles, magazines found street side or in libraries, later on, a few books. The story arc of Maradona, mesmeric typhoon of the 1986 World Cup to the deranged spectator on the balcony of the St Petersburg Stadium in 2018, is well-known and much mourned over.

Even with this information bank from history, the revelation in Kapadia's documentary comes from its scale. Of the intensity of everything. Maradona's football, his place as breadwinner to a large family, his response to the city of Naples, the size of his stardom and its inverse intimacy with everyone, no matter how far removed from the charmed circle of a superstar athlete's life. The footage - distilled out of 500 hours - is Maradona's entire tragic hero life telescoped into two hours. There are voiceovers from dozens of people around at the time including the man himself, as he sounds today - Maradona as washed-up, beat-up, yesteryear footballing god.

But the archival material itself is the stuff of riches, gold ingots if you like, stacked one on top of the other. Kapadia has said that Maradona's first agent Jorge Cyterszpiler got two cameramen, Argentinian Juan Luburu and Italian Luigi Martucci to follow him around everywhere in the early years. The intention was to produce a movie, which never got made, Cyterszpiler and Maradona split up but Kapadia's producers were able to source the material. Along with telling Maradona's tale, what the footage also does is place before us sport and celebrity in the 80s in granular, unsanitised detail.


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The most illuminating aspect of the football action is what we both see and hear. In unsophisticated, grainy coverage, with awkward camera angles from ground level, Maradona's greatness as a footballer is understood, sensed in the gut. With the delicacy of a sledgehammer to the eye and the mind.

In a random Serie A match, with tens of thousands packed in hollering, we see him moving. Skipping over the field, faster than our mind can process or his markers can control. They will cut him down soon and he knows he must let go. He finds himself in what appears to be a ludicrous position from the goalmouth with the narrowest of angles - so obtuse, so remote - that there is no possible way there. But he must make his move or he will get hacked at and so he does: and we hear it and feel it. The thwack of his boot on ball, the sound of the muscle power in his legs, and the velocity at which the ball travels, like it has scattered everyone in its path. The viewer finds himself standing on the sideline with the camera and seeing the ball crash into the net, goalposts and crossbar left shaking, goalkeeper sprawled on the ground. Godalive. In a random game of football. Over and over again. Did they turn the sound of the crowd down or did Maradona and the ball occupy all of our senses?

Today through high-definition, macro close-up, we can see the pores of superstar athletes' skin, the sweat off their eyelashes. With 24 camera angles, we can enjoy, watch and study the game. Compared to what football was thirty years ago and how it was recorded, what we see today appears air-brushed, over-processed. Magnificently detailed yes, but Kapadia's movie reminds what technology has pushed to the side.

Through the raw footage off the movie - raw in every sense - you experience both a proximity to the pace and whirl of his life as well as the crush of expectation around Maradona.

The film mostly covers Maradona's seven years in Italy with Napoli, but they are a snapshot of what happened when a burning, yearning talent met the mantrap of fame. Maradona, you realise, could only have been a 20th Century sporting star. Moving around with the constant press of the public, at his doorstep, on the ground, in the dressing room. For whom he was always within touching distance, for worship or condemnation. A tangible God and a devil who deserved to be stoned.

This was before we were aware that an athlete's image was a controllable, manageable thing. That access to sporting greatness could be sealed off from the outside world. The closest that an Indian could process Maradona and Napoli is thinking of Tendulkar and India - but five times over. With mafia gangsters and cocaine parties and nurses who after the legitimate purpose of taking a blood sample offers it in the city's biggest church as the blood of God.

Yet, how much of the insanity of Napoli, both city and club, went on to make Maradona what he became? On-field genius, World Cup winner and off-field derelict?

During Maradona's time, Naples was called the sewer of Italy, awful racist chants ringing out in every wealthy northern Italy city where Napoli played. One of those was: "What a smell, even the dogs run away when the Neapolitans arrive. Oh, victims of cholera and earthquakes, you never wash yourselves." As late as October 2013, Juventus of Turin were punished for these same chants with a partial stadium ban and four other Serie A clubs - Inter, AC Milan, Roma and Torino - were also threatened with punishment for the identical reason.

With his football at Napoli, Maradona responded as if it was he himself who was being slighted for belonging to the margins, immersed in both Naples' passions and its darkness. He leads Napoli to the club's only two League titles to date, and their first European Cup win. Then he turns up to score the penalty that knocks Italy out of the 1990 World Cup and him out of Naples' affections. Yet they remain, as I found more than a decade later, still locked in a doomed, unyielding relationship.

Since then, football has continued to find its flawed superstars, with stories of drunkenness and bawdiness and lawlessness. Yet on the Maradona scale, these are merely white-collar offences. Supertars serve their time at clubs and move on. Any booing or chanting when they play against their old clubs is de rigueur. They don't seep into a city's soul and settle down there, even after they are gone. Unlike Maradona.

In 2001, in a nuts-and-bolts pizzeria near the Naples Railway station, I was delighted to see faded posters of Napoli's title-wining teams tacked on a wall. "Hey, Maradona!" I said by way of small talk to the two men behind the counter. The younger man smiled ruefully and said, "it was a long time ago." The older man, moving the long wooden paddle around in the pizza oven, makes an angry, dismissive sound and says in broken English, "I wish he never had come." But, why? The man pulled the pizza out of the oven, slapped it down on the counter and said, "I wish he had not come - because he showed us what we could be."

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