Every modern football fan has heard the stories of Diego Maradona: coming out of poverty in Argentina, the incredible goals, the controversy on the field, the insane life off it. Never before, though, besides maybe a clip or two from YouTube or archives, has the public seen much of the truth behind the legend. Not, at least, until HBO and Asif Kapadia’s new documentary “Diego Maradona” (2019).
The new documentary is an incredible must-watch for any soccer fan. The film focuses mostly on Maradona’s time with Italian club Napoli, and zooms out to show how his seven years with the club perfectly encapsulates his epic life.
What makes this documentary so incredible is not just the stories — as noted, we know most of them already. Rather, how the stories are told is remarkable: The film is cut together entirely of found footage; everything the viewer sees is previously recorded by either Maradona, his associates or gleaned from contemporary news broadcasts.
There are, in typical documentary fashion, interviews with either Maradona himself or close friends and family, but we are never removed from the moment with a sharp cut back to these interviews. Rather cleverly, Kapadia uses these interviews as voiceover to narrate the action we see before our eyes, giving them a level of depth and context, and allowing us to never lose focus.
What really makes the use of found footage so wonderful to experience is how it contributes to Maradona’s legacy. As noted, Maradona is equally known for his celebrity as much as his soccer skills. The footage only supports that reputation. We see him at his apex, weaving through defenders to score goals most players could only dream of, leading Napoli to its first-ever Italian championship on the heels of winning the 1986 FIFA World Cup with Argentina. Kapadia cues us in intimately, allowing us to feel the euphoria of each heroic moment.
In turn, the documentary also clearly shows how each Herculean feat contributed to his tragic downfall. After moments of great success we see footage of Maradona in public, smothered. Thanks to the pure amount of press coverage, along with fans fully surrounding him, Maradona literally is only able to move by forcing his way through the crowd. None of this feels celebratory, more so incredibly suffocating.
This level of celebrity it seems pushed Maradona to the party lifestyle he became known for; thanks to old videos, photos and Maradona himself, we learn that he, during his time in Naples, was incredibly friendly with the Camorra, a Mafia syndicate that controlled much of southern Italy at the time. The Camorra would supply Maradona with all sorts of illicit vices and in turn he would go to events or business openings.
From this we can see why this documentary is more special than your typical celebrity biographical documentary. The mythic tales that made Maradona into the godlike figure that he became are no longer folk, but reality. This convergence doesn’t diminish Maradona to some small figure because it doesn’t negate what we think — it proves it correct in many ways. We thought Diego Maradona was larger than life, and, for better or worse, he was.
Although this may seem like a glorification, “Diego Maradona” feels much more elegiac. The documentary posits that the legend was split between two personalities: “Diego,” the incredible wizard with a soccer ball who purely loved the game, and “Maradona,” the global superstar who took to drugs as an escape.
By the end of the film, and his time in Naples, though, it becomes clear that “Maradona” won the battle between these two figures though and that “Diego” could no longer be salvaged. “Diego Maradona” serves as a tragic reminder of how celebrity can push our most brilliant artists down dark paths.
For any true soccer fan, this documentary should go to the top of their watch list. It provides unheralded levels of access to Maradona’s life, and consequently it becomes truly gripping.