The Argentinian international famously dumped England out of the 1986 World Cup with equal parts cheating and brilliance, and helped turn a struggling Napoli into a league-topping team. Off the pitch there was booze, drugs, sex workers, a child he claimed wasn't his and ties to the Naples Mafia that all exploded in a fiery mess that led to a demise that felt as rapid as his ascent.
Asif Kapadia, director of the Oscar-winning Amy Winehouse film Amy – and Senna, about the late F1 driver Ayrton Senna – has taken on the life and career of Maradona for his latest feature, Diego Maradona. Here, he talks about the years-in-the-making project and his experiences of working with one of football's most notorious characters.
VICE: How did you pitch this film to Maradona?
Asif Kapadia: The honest truth is: I didn't. He knew about me because he was a big fan of Senna. Then, while my producers were negotiating the deal, Amy was on an awards run and won an Oscar, and then on his social media he had a picture of me with the Oscar saying, "This guy is making a film about me next."
Did he have terms and conditions for being involved?
This is one of those films that I could never quite work out how interested they were in me making. There was no request to see final cut, no "you can't do this" or "you can't do that". It was the most hands-off experience you can imagine.
There's still a real presence to him as a figure. Was he intimidating?
Absolutely. He has a presence, there's no denying it. He's not tall, but he's very charismatic. You become aware when he walks into or leaves a room. When he's happy he gives off a little smile and you feel it; when he starts performing, it's great. You can imagine what it would be like to hang around with his inner circle in Naples in the 1980s – it would have been incredible. That said, when he's not in a chatty mode and when he says no, you can see how quickly he can turn sour.
How did the interviews take place?
I interviewed him about four or five times. Some days I wouldn't even get an interview and sometimes it would be for hours, then we'd go away for a year and come back. I had a bunch of heavier questions that I was trying to get to, and even when I went through some of the easy questions he'd be like, "I don't want to talk about her, never mention her name again," or, "I don't want to talk about that guy, he stole loads of money from me." We had a good system in place, where I would get live translation in my ear so that if I asked him a question about his private life and he starts talking about Sepp Blatter for 15 minutes, I could interrupt and say, 'That's not my question." A couple of times I kept bringing him back to something pretty serious, and he did look at me and say, "You've got a nerve asking me these questions to my face," and then there was a long pause, but then he said, "But for that I respect you."
He sounds like an equally exciting and unpredictable subject.
Normally you build up a relationship or a trust with somebody, but due to us not speaking the same language, I was unable to build up a relationship with him. It was quite a tough film to make. You never knew what mood he would be in until he walked into a room. Also, our meetings were spread out over years, and at times I don't think he remembered who I was. Why would he remember me when he has probably given about 500 interviews since I last saw him? So I was always thinking, 'Has he got any idea who I am?' He still hasn't even seen the film.
Why is that? Most people would be desperate to see the final edit of a feature-length film that's been made about their life.
Partly he's not bothered – he's also busy being a coach [of the Mexican club, Dorados] – and partly maybe some nerves too, and worrying about what the film is going to be. But mainly I think he's just done it all and seen it all. Part of the dance with Maradona is that he needs people to talk to him, but when you do he's going to act like he's not bothered about the fact that you want to talk to him. Or if you're not interested then he'll do something to make sure people are talking about him.
The film spends a lot of time in his prime footballing years and gains a lot of momentum during his Napoli years, but then things all go sour in quite a short space of time. What do you attribute to this turning point?
It depends on what level. In regards to his relationship with Italy and Naples, it all comes down to the semi-final in the 1990 World Cup [when he scores against Italy in penalties]. The big thing that took place in his private life is that he has this son that he doesn't recognise as his own. I think there's a before and an after on that decision. When you see him starting to lie and denying that kid and saying he didn't know the mother, that for me is the turning point in his character, and a lot of his problems come off the back of all those lies. It's quite sad that someone has a kid and, for 30 years, they pretend it's not his [Maradona publicly accepted the man as his son in 2016]. That hurt the mother of the child, the child, Maradona himself, his family – all of these people were suffering because he didn't stand up and admit to his own responsibilities.
Also, around the same time you have his escalating drug use and his connections to the Mafia. How naive do you think he was about the company he kept, or was he very aware of what he was doing?
In some interviews before we made the film, there was a lot of, "I didn't know who I was meeting," and I don't think that was entirely true. Either way, he really suffered from that relationship and came out of it the worst – he had an addictive personality and they fed that. I think this story is a bit of Senna and a bit of Amy: a masculine hero who has an entire nation's weight on his shoulders but is also very vulnerable and needs to be loved, and also finds himself often in situations where people are enjoying themselves, but he's struggling and hurting himself through his addictions.
The film explores him having something of a split personality, with Diego being a humble and kind man and Maradona the wild public persona full of bravado. Did you see both sides to him?
I kind of felt like the person I was making a film about doesn't really exist anymore. If we have a spectrum of Diego being on the far left and hardcore Maradona on the far right, I think I’m quite far on the right based on my experiences with him. I don't know how much of that Diego from Naples in the 1980s is left. People who know him closely also share this opinion. People would often say, "I wish that person was still left in him to go back to, but he's gone." He is someone else now. When I was interviewing his old trainer, he said, "Be prepared that you will be in the company of the world's greatest liar." He said it jokingly, but Maradona himself says football is a game of deceit, it's trickery, and he's like that himself; he throws you. You ask him one question and he answers with something else. That brain is still there, but it's very much on the Maradona end of things.
The public image of him still seems to be that he's pretty wild and maybe also drug-addled. Is that exaggerated to fit a media narrative, or did you get the sense he is still like that?
People make a lot of cruel and nasty jokes about him, and during the 2018 World Cup he wasn't in a good way. But I look at that and can see he's an addict. So if you've got a situation where lots of people are giving him free champagne, he won't be able to stop. There was a lot of stuff on social media about him around then, but spending time with him, that's not what he looks like now. But it doesn't matter – people will share it anyway. There's that image people shared at the time of what looks like a packet of drugs next to him on a private jet, but I actually think that's old footage. It doesn't matter what the truth is, because the joke just goes on and on. It's quite sad. I feel sorry for him. If you're an addict then you're an addict for the rest of your life, unless you've had proper help, and I’m not sure if he's had proper help. He just has to abstain and I’m not sure if he can.
Does he have a lot of enablers around him?
The people I met around him were good people. The problem with him is that, wherever he goes, people want to buy him a drink, or will be like, "I'll sort you out." But I think he's working hard and doing the best he can as a coach, and keeping himself busy is a good way to be away from temptation.
Would modern football allow for someone like Maradona to exist?
On the pitch, I think the person he's most similar to is Luis Suarez. When he's on your team you love him, but when he's not, you hate his guts. He's a winner and a fighter. Off the pitch you've got someone like Ronaldinho, who was thought to have trained very little and went out partying, but his career was quite short. That's the problem: if you live that lifestyle, you don't spend much time at your peak. Although Maradona was at his peak for quite a long time, there are very few players that can get to that height and be like that. Players are trained to be super professional now, which in the grand scheme of things is better, but there's less interesting characters.
Diego Maradona has its UK Premiere at Sheffield Doc/Fest on the 6th of June, and is in cinemas from the 14th of June.