It begins with a high-octane car journey through the chaotic streets of Naples to the city’s San Paolo stadium. The stadium and surrounding streets are alive with more than 75,000 ecstatic and expectant Napoli fans. But there’s no game today. It’s July 6, 1984, and Naples is welcoming a man who, seven years later, would leave the city alone.
On the plane journey to Naples, Argentinian footballer Diego Maradona is asked what he expects from his new city: ”I expect peace,” he says. “The peace I didn’t get in Barcelona.” Did Maradona know where he was going? Did he know anything about Italy’s third largest city, a city that sits at the foot of one of the world’s most dangerous volcanoes, famed for its violent eruptions?
The car journey forms the opening sequence to Asif Kapadia’s documentary film, Maradona, which tells the life story of one of the greatest players in football history in two action-packed hours. We learn about Maradona’s earliest years in the slums of Villa Fiorito, Buenos Aires, his first contract with Argentinos Juniors at the age of 15 and his move to Spain and Barcelona. However, the main action takes place in the rambunctious environs of Naples. In one of the many voice-overs and interviews, Kapadia uses to cleverly narrate the film, journalist Daniel Arcucci states that Maradona’s life so far is reflected in those seven years with Napoli. He reduces this even further to four words: rebel, cheat, hero, God.
Of course, Maradona’s story is well known to Italian football fans, particularly his seven-year spell with Napoli between 1984 and 1991. As the club’s talisman, Maradona led the Partenopei to their first-ever Scudetto in 1987, a Coppa Italia triumph the same season, followed by UEFA Cup success in 1989 and a second Scudetto in 1990. Napoli fans held Maradona in the same high esteem as San Gennaro, Naples’ revered patron saint. Shrines and murals appeared across the city. Everyone in Naples wanted a piece of Maradona. Away from football, however, he lost control. The Neapolitan night-life, the birth of a child from an extra-marital affair, the grip of Naples’ organised crime scene (the Giuliano family, in particular) took over. All of this accompanied by his ultimate, uncontrollable nemesis: cocaine.
Kapadia’s film provides an extremely intimate portrayal of these years thanks to footage picked from more than 500 hours of previously unseen videotapes from Diego’s personal archive. We’re treated to Maradona conducting a post-UEFA Cup Final victory interview with a clearly overwhelmed Ciro Ferrara, who scored one of Napoli’s goals in their triumph over VfB Stuttgart, cradled in his arms. There’s an abundance of feints, remarkable exhibitions of ball control and spectacular goals.
We also see Maradona turning interviewer, grabbing microphones and posing his teammates, and club president Corrado Ferlaino, questions in the dressing room after both Scudetto victories. However, the footage also brings the ‘dark side’ a lot closer. The sheer brutality of the challenges Maradona faced on the park is exposed. There is fear in his eyes as he is surrounded by an intense media scrum almost everywhere he goes – this is most evident when Maradona and his Argentina teammates return to Buenos Aires from Mexico in 1986 with the World Cup trophy. There’s also the nightclub footage and chilling wiretapped phone calls, where the seeds for Maradona’s eventual downfall were sown.
The catalyst for Maradona’s departure from Naples was the World Cup semi-final of 1990, when his Argentina side, defending the trophy they lifted in Mexico, defeated hosts Italy at the San Paolo. ‘A big mistake’ is how one member of the Italian Football Federation recalls the decision to allow Argentina to play such an important tie in Maradona’s adopted city. Ahead of the match, Maradona had called for Neapolitans to turn their backs on their home country in favour of Argentina. When the South Americans progressed on penalty-kicks, the backlash across the Peninsula was relentless. Suddenly, Maradona’s protection was gone; he became the most hated man in Italy. Maradona had wanted to leave Naples a year earlier, though Ferlaino had refused a transfer. When Diego failed a drugs test after a home match against Bari in March 1991, however, the game was up. It was his last appearance at the San Paolo.
Asif Kapadia has said that the idea to make the Maradona film came from meeting producer Paul Martin in 2012, who was enthralled by English author John Ludden’s book ‘Once Upon a Time in Naples,’ which recounts Maradona’s extraordinary time with Napoli and his explosive relationship with the city. “Writing the story of Diego Maradona’s seven years in Naples was fascinating,” Ludden says. “I’ve always loved football and also had a fascination with gangster movies (The Godfather, Scarface, Goodfellas, Once Upon a Time in America), and throw in Diego, the Camorra [the Neapolitan mafia], cocaine, and a crazy, beautiful city like Naples into the equation, then that’s one hell of a concoction.”
Ludden was lucky enough to witness Maradona playing at the Sao Paolo in the flesh, just as Napoli were closing in on their second Scudetto. “The atmosphere was one of raw fanaticism,” he says. “Come 1990, Diego had changed as a player, but maintained the touches of sheer magic and still possessed the aura of a man able to hold a stadium in the palm of his hand. The ultimate performer whom like a Bruce Springsteen or Sir Laurence Olivier, when the mood arose, the stage became a real theatre of dreams for those lucky enough to experience it. The San Paolo still at that time was Diego’s stage and they continued to adore him for a short time more.”
Apart from his home in Buenos Aires, the magic of Maradona simply could not have reached the same level in any city but Naples. Ultimately, however, and perhaps like Maradona himself, the city’s explosive undercurrent is never far away. “For me, there’s no city in the world able to hold a candle to Naples,” Ludden says. “It possesses magic, an aura, the people are wonderful, the bay is beautiful on the eye, and yet, lurking just below the surface is another world. One for a writer that forms a perfect circle. No one is more proud of their city than Neapolitans, and none despair equally so at the problems it possesses. Crime, drugs and poverty exist alongside Naples’ breath-taking but imperfect heart. There is, amongst many locals, the notion to live for today, as tomorrow is a distant dream, with the constant menace of a brooding Mount Vesuvius on the horizon, greeting them every day.”
Will we ever see such an occasion in football again? Arguably the world’s greatest player joining an underdog and leading them to their moment in the sun. Did such a transfer only happen because of ‘dirty’ money? A journalist is removed from Maradona’s first press conference with Napoli for asking if the Argentinian has heard of the Camorra, which draws a furious response from President Ferlaino. Is any money in football ‘clean’? it could similarly be argued.
What cannot be questioned is what Maradona brought to the people of Naples with his skill, artistry and mastery of the football. This was a city that was not meant to win. A people constantly mocked by the rest of the country – ‘wash yourselves’ was the most common chant on the terraces when Napoli travelled to play their strutting rivals from the North – and forgotten by the authorities. However, it’s through their own simple chant that Napoli’s relationship with Maradona is best remembered:
O mamma mamma mamma (Oh mamma mamma mamma)
O mamma mamma mamma (Oh mamma mamma mamma)
Sai perche mi batte il Corazon? (Do you know why my heart is beating so?)
Ho visto Maradona (I saw Maradona)
Ho visto Maradona (I saw Maradona)
Eh, mamma, Innamorato son (Eh, mamma, I fell in love with him)