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Asif Kapadia's Maradona Documentary Slices Through the Myth to Show Us the Man

Asif Kapadia's Maradona Documentary Slices Through the Myth to Show Us the Man

Wednesday, 9 October, 2019 - 06:00
Diego Maradona has held cultural sway in Argentina since the 1980s. Illustration: Francisco Navas/The Guardian
London - Francisco Navas
Diego Armando Maradona’s life is a cliché, a rags to riches tragedy. He started as a poor boy with no filter, one whose ruthless drive and innate skill took him to greatness, before a sudden fall. Had he been watching, Andy Warhol would have been enthralled.

Asif Kapadia, who won an Oscar for Amy, another documentary about a scintillating talent who came crashing to earth, is the man behind a new film about Maradona. In the film, titled Maradona, Kapadia slices through the persisting myth of D10S, attempting to free Diego the man from Maradona the legend. After a limited theatrical release, HBO brings the film to US audiences this week.

America missed his legend, catching him at perhaps his lowest low, when he flamed out of the 1994 World Cup after a failed drugs test. In the US, he was a hero to only a few – and I was one of them. As a teenage Argentinian immigrant in the United States in the early 2000s, struggling to reconcile my cultural identity with my new country, I clung to Maradona. He was Platonic Argentinianess, and I found in his legend the answers I sought. His was a greatness to strive for and a perseverance to mimic. His legend held what the teenage me saw as answers about masculinity (be brash, work hard and be a leader) and sportsmanship (forget about it).

Sure, lessons can be found in any world-class athlete, but with Maradona they all came wrapped in an albiceleste bow of patriotism. His success was Argentina’s and by extension mine, decades and thousands of miles away from his heyday. His brilliant goals, his breathtaking skills, his trophies, his literal single-handed demolition of England in 1986 – they were mine too. He validated my reverence for a culture that I was separated from and gave me a love I could share with the only other Argentinian teenager in a neighborhood that was mostly Venezuelan and Colombian.

As a kid, I looked past his drug addiction and involvement with the mafia. Now, the reality of Maradona’s past, which Kapadia skilfuly peels back, is undeniable. Maradona’s present raises even more worrying questions.

Now, after a decade-long absence, Diego (or is it Maradona?) is back in Argentina, to start another chapter. He has taken a job as the manager of embattled Gimnasia y Esgrima, a club languishing near the bottom of the Argentinian Superliga. For Gimnasia supporters, the excitement is real. But despite his insistence that he’s back in Argentina to work (“I am no magician”, he told supporters at his presentation) the motives behind Maradona’s return are opaque. Some argue that it is no coincidence that Maradona is using his fame to bring attention to the club, following the Argentinian tradition of using football as a distraction in times of political instability.

Giselle Fernandez, sister of Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, the former president and current vice-presidential candidate for Argentina’s opposition party Frente Para Todos, gifted Maradona a rosary carrying a locket. Inside, was a picture of her mother. Maradona is an avowed Kirchnerist and Fernandez is an ardent Gimnasia supporter.

It’s unclear how much business the Fernandez family have tied up in the club – if any – but Noticias, an Argentinian weekly magazine, reported that the club expects to make $3m from sponsorship this season. In the 10 days after the announcement, the club sold 6m pesos ($105,000) worth of jerseys.

The footballer who helped me love my country may be a willing pawn to distract Argentina’s citizens in the critical upcoming elections. Or, perhaps it’s just a club taking the risky bet that he can harvest the same success he had as a player. Kapadia shows us a frightened Maradona. A man who allowed his legend to consume his life, ultimately destroying him. Is Maradona falling into another loop in which he attaches himself to power to feed his need to be loved, leading to his own demise? Does he even realise he is doing this?

Still, there are some lessons from Maradona I hold dear – his perseverance and drive. Other, more negative ones, I’ve cast aside. As time passes Maradona’s myth will continue to change. The only certainty is that the image we have of Maradona is the same as that of Marilyn Monroe, Elvis or any other subject of Warhol’s diptychs: a fiction. We can take the lessons we want – or leave them.

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