Maradona documentary packs plenty of Catholic imagery to go with its soccer

Argentina fans unfurl a banner during the 2014 World Cup featuring three Argentine stars: Pope Francis in the center, flanked by soccer stars Diego Maradona (left) and Lionel Messi (right). Photo by Clemente Lisi.

Argentina fans unfurl a banner during the 2014 World Cup featuring three Argentine stars: Pope Francis in the center, flanked by soccer stars Diego Maradona (left) and Lionel Messi (right). Photo by Clemente Lisi.

(FILM REVIEW) There is no other soccer player — perhaps with the exception of Pele — who has had a bigger impact on the sport than Diego Maradona. The eponymous documentary by Oscar-winning director Asif Kapadia illustrates the magnitude with which the Argentine-born star impacted the game throughout the 1980s and how soccer’s biggest deity went from heaven to a dramatic fall from grace.

That sports figures are worshipped like gods isn’t new. Many already consider soccer the world’s biggest religion. After all, it is the planet’s most popular sport. It’s therefore no surprise that one of the sport’s best players would be elevated to such heights. While Maradona led Argentina to a World Cup title in 1986, it was his time playing in the Italian city of Naples that elevated him to god-like status. Indeed, before there was Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, the best soccer player in the world was Maradona.

Kapadia’s film, which will be released in select U.S. theaters starting Sept. 20 and will air on HBO Oct. 1, chronicles Maradona’s fascinating six-year journey in the Italian city of Naples beginning in 1984. With the help of more than 500 hours of footage, Kapadia has managed to produce a masterpiece two-hour documentary. In addition to Maradona’s personal videos and photos, Kapadia aptly mixes decades-old footage and interviews to retell Maradona’s life. He packs lots of stuff in such a timeframe — and isn’t shy about reveling the religious symbolism his legend took on.

Maradona is still worshipped in Argentina and, above all, in Naples. It was there that Maradona led Napoli to its first Italian league title in 1987, followed by a second in 1990. True, Maradona performed miracles on the field by day, much to the delight of his suffocating fans. By night, he lived recklessly. Maradona was a regular in the city’s seedy nightclubs and became addicted to cocaine in the process.

By 1989, the documentary notes, Maradona had become a tortured soul. He wanted out at Napoli. The team, addicted to the success he had brought them, refused to allow him the chance to sign someplace else. Maradona’s drug addiction, along with his relationship to the local mafia, ultimately led to his downfall. In 1991, he failed a drug test and given a 15-month international ban from the game.

This engrossing documentary, whether intentional or not, doesn’t shy away from using religious imagery to tell Maradona’s story. After all, Maradona was born and raised a Roman Catholic in the slums on the outskirts of Buenos Aires. It was there he learned to play soccer on the streets, juggling a ragged ball for hours to the amazement of his friends and neighbors. Since the documentary has no narrator, the first-person reflections of Maradona, his family and those around him offer a raw and unfiltered look into his past. Some 85,000 fans packed the San Paolo Stadium in Naples (yes, stadiums in Italy are named after saints) upon Maradona’s arrival to the city just to watch him juggle a ball and take a victory lap. It was love at first sight for the fans.

What emerges in this film is a man of contradictions. The documentary (in Spanish and Italian with English subtitles) makes it a point to differentiate between two men and hence its title. One was “Diego,” a simple boy who wanted to play soccer as a way out of poverty. The other was “Maradona,” a reckless buffoon hellbent on hurting himself. It is here that Maradona’s piety also comes into question. Not afraid to make the sign of the cross each time he entered the field, Maradona admits that soccer is a game that involves both skill and the ability to be cunning.

“This was my salvation,” Maradona says when speaking about the game.

Maradona displayed that very essence in the quarterfinals of the 1986 World Cup in Argentina’s 2-1 win against England, a game that took place just a few years after the Falklands War. Maradona scored twice in that game. The first goal by punching the ball past goalkeeper Peter Shilton. He would later call that goal “The hand of God,” a famous quote of his and something the film oddly fails to mention. The second goal was instead a piece of genius, where Maradona dribbled past practically the entire English team before slotting it into the net. Therein lies the contradiction.

Maradona, who was interviewed for the film but never appears on screen, is spoken of in religious terms throughout the documentary. His rabid fans likened him to a savior, while detractors weren’t shy about labeling him the devil. In Naples, where the documentary primarily takes place, is where Maradona is given god-like status. Sundays become the time fans go to the stadium to worship him. Soccer replaces church and becomes a communal experience for thousands. Inside homes and on street murals, his likeness is  elevated alongside those of Jesus, the Virgin Mary and San Gennaro, the city’s patron saint. Tiny altars, commonplace on street corners throughout the city’s streets, to this day feature Maradona’s photo. He becomes an icon in every sense of the word. These profane Maradona memorials — considered sacrilegious even — embody the rabid and unhealthy nature surrounding his adoration.

This documentary has few weaknesses. For those who know Maradona’s life well, it does a great job helping audiences relive the ups and downs of a man so skillful at his craft, yet beset by the pressure to succeed that comes with being an international star. For those unfamiliar with Maradona, the film does a very good job encapsulating his life and his impact on the world. It allows you to cheer Maradona’s victories and wince at his many failures. It makes Maradona human so many years after many had treated him like a god.    

Clemente Lisi is a regular contributor to Religion Unplugged. He currently teaches journalism at The King’s College in New York City.