In 2014 Diego Maradona mused: “Sometimes I think that my whole life is on film, that my whole life is in print.” That was the opening line of his autobiography, El Diego, and in that astonishing book he didn’t seem to leave much out. Now for the movie…
It’s a documentary, called Diego Maradona: Rebel. Hero. Hustler. God. Unwieldy, don’t you think? I mean, he’s all of these things but the clunky protractedness of the title doesn’t suit him. Rebel, hero, hustler, god – perhaps the flick will be a life told in four acts. This has got me thinking: maybe four has always been a key number for Maradona. Did he slalom past four Englishmen for that goal of goals in the 1986 World Cup? No, it was five. Same tournament, was he confronted by four Belgians for the most famous still picture from his incredible career, every one of the poor suckers about to be left with twisted blood? No, it was six. Typical Diego, always bigger, always more outlandish, so maybe that title fits after all.
We’ll find out what it means soon enough. The doc has just been world-premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and opens in Britain on 14 June. It’s been directed by Asif Kapadia, pictured, who sees it as the final part of a trilogy of profiles of “child geniuses, and fame and the effect it can have”. The first was Senna, about Ayrton Senna, and the second was Amy, about Amy Winehouse.
There’s a difference this time, though, besides the fact the others had snappier titles. The motor-racing champion and the singer are both dead; Maradona is still gracing World Cups with his presence, offering the middle finger one minute and collapsing in the stand and requiring the paramedics the next.
After that drama in Russia last summer, Gary Lineker remarked on TV that Maradona was “in danger of becoming a laughing stock”. What did Maradona say about Lineker in El Diego? The memoirs are never far away from my desk so I checked: “A great goalscorer, but he didn’t fulfil his potential.” Ouch. Double ouch, in fact, because the testimony is so brief. This is a verbose book, which is why I love it. (Hmm, now I’m thinking that a better title for the film might be Diego Maradona: Rebel. Hero. Hustler. God. Beggarman. Thief. Tinker. Tailor. Soldier. Spy. Butcher. Baker. Candlestick Maker. Model. Actress. Whatever.).
To top the book, the film will have to go some. El Diego was a riot, a blast, a great spew from a game-show gunk-dispenser.
Maradona was unstoppable, like in the Azteca against England. He was unvarnished, undaunted and, some might argue, unthinking. But this made the book unputdownable, which isn’t my usual verdict regarding footballers’ tales. Some of its joy came from Maradona not so much being lost in translation but gaining from it. “Maradona has a unique use of language,” it says in the introduction to El Diego. “Born and raised in poverty, he has never abandoned the jargon of the streets. His narrative is peppered with the dialect known as lunfardo, a repertoire of terms brought into Argentina mostly by Italian immigrants before the First World War, fused with words of peasant origins, and some indigenous terminology.”
The book leaves some words in the original Spanish form, eg bronca, meaning “anger, fury, hatred, resentment, discontent… for Maradona the most familiar of emotions”. But phrases “entirely made up” by him are translated: “Take the cat’s milk, let the tortoise get away, give the dog its face back.” In Diego’s world, “vaccinating” an opponent means he’s stabbed them with a goal. “Thermos-head” denotes someone who’s stupid or slow, including Peter Shilton for conceding those two goals in ’86, the stupendous one and the Hand of God, and his former manager who invested Maradona’s money in “any old thing: petrol, houses, bingo halls in Paraguay” – hence his need to move to Napoli to start again.
The first teaser clip for the film shows Maradona being unveiled by Napoli with a vast herd of newsmen being warned the event will be cancelled if they don’t dial down the excitability, although any similar appeal to fans straining to see through the ceiling has fallen on deaf ears, and these guys bang the bars like lifers protesting about withdrawn privileges.
What’s new about the film? Well, how do you fancy 500 hours of never-before-seen footage from Maradona’s attic? Obviously Kapadia, pictured inset, will have distilled them down. It’s not going to be 500 hours of Maradona being bronca and calling everyone thermos-head. Unlike Senna and Amy, the film-maker had the opportunity to interview his subject. This was a challenge and a half, rather like confronting him out on the park in his pomp with his puffed chest and those thighs of hard, polished wood. There was the logistics issue: Maradona often stays in bed well into the afternoon. There was the untruths issue. “Just be aware,” Kapadia was told, “that you’re going to be in the presence of the world’s greatest liar.”
“We had to get past the bullshit,” Kapadia said, “and make him realise we were different [from all the other documentarists who’d tried and failed to get him out of bed].” There were tense moments. “You’ve got a nerve asking me those questions to my face,” Maradona told him at one point. “But for that I respect you.”
Those 500 hours seem to focus on the Napoli period when Maradona dragged the club from the bottom of Serie A to the top, the street-party lasting a whole two months. One of those purportedly looking after Maradona’s best interests hired cameramen to follow him everywhere, including to drug-fuelled parties. Another thermos-head, obviously.
I’m looking forward to the film but it has hard acts to follow. Not just Senna and Amy, both of which were brilliant, but also Maradona’s book. On the last page, he looked back on his journey from his dirt-poor slum in Buenos Aires: “It felt like I, El Diego, had been taken out of Villa Fiorito and given a kick on the arse that landed me on top of the world, on top of the Eiffel Tower. But I was still wearing the same pair of trousers, my only ones, the ones I wore winter and summer, that corduroy pair…”