Director Asif Kapadia On ‘Diego Maradona’ And Why The Iconic Footballer Is So Special

There’s a moment about 20 minutes into Diego Maradona that serves as the film’s de facto thesis statement. Clips of Maradona, the diminutive giant of a footballer whose peak during the 1980s is perhaps the greatest in the history of the sport, working out before joining Napoli feature a voiceover from his trainer, Fernando Signorini.

Maradona’s story is not unique — ever person experiences highs and lows, triumph and tragedy — but what makes it so gripping is the heights to which he climbed and the lows to which he fell. A god one day and a pariah the next, there has never been (and, assuredly, never can be) another person quite like Maradona. This, in part, is because of Signorini’s belief that two people could live within Maradona’s 5’5 frame that still managed to stand shoulder for shoulder with the game’s giants.

“I learned that there was Diego and there was Maradona,” Signorini says. “Diego was a kid who had insecurities, a wonderful boy. Maradona was the character he had to come up with in order to face the demands of the football business and the media. Maradona couldn’t show any weakness. One day I told him that with Diego I would go to the end of the world, but with Maradona, I wouldn’t take a step.”

This conflict between Diego and Maradona is central to the documentary, which will be released on Sunday, Oct. 1 at 8 p.m. EST on HBO. The latest film from acclaimed director Asif Kapadia, Diego Maradona looks at the life of perhaps the greatest footballer to ever live, with the lion’s share of the film revolving around his time with Italian side Napoli. Maradona reached the highest of highs with club and country, two things that we come to learn were not necessarily compatible with one another.

But Kapadia doesn’t just lionize Maradona’s greatness, because the Argentinian hero is as controversial as he was brilliant. Like his previous two documentaries, Senna and Amy, which tell the stories of Formula One icon Ayrton Senna and renowned singer Amy Winehouse, Kapadia uses archived footage to paint a comprehensive portrait of his subject. Inadvertently, he found, Maradona sits at the intersection of his previous two films.

“Maradona is part Senna because he’s a Latin American sporting hero, but he’s also part Amy because he’s very vulnerable and he suffers and he ends up seeking kind of to lose himself almost in addiction,” Kapadia told Uproxx. “So I think they became linked. And also they’re kind of about child stars. They’re brilliant people who somehow succeed, but also, the price of fame is really heavy on them.”

While Maradona’s life has played out in the public eye for decades, more than 500 hours worth of footage and a series of interviews — including conversations that Kapadia had with Maradona himself — are weaved together in a tour de force of a film worthy of the man, the footballer, and the mythology that surrounds him. In fact, those close to Maradona have told him they enjoyed the film, praising it for being “tough, but it’s honest.” This is necessary because its subject still has not seen it.

“He’s heard about the film,” Kapadia says. “Maybe that’s enough for him? Maybe that’s it? I do think at some point it will be on and privately he’ll watch it, and you’ll know about it because he’ll be on Instagram 15 minutes after the film is over saying what he thinks.”

Prior to its release, we spoke to Kapadia about the project, whether Maradona, for all his flaws, is the greatest footballer to ever live, and much more.

Can you draw the line between Senna, Amy, and Diego Maradona?

Well, the first doc that I made … my background is in fiction films and I made very visual films, films with very little dialogue where the story is told with images. So the first doc that I made was Senna. I’ve always been a sport fan, I’ve always loved sports, so I was interested in kind of trying to tell this story of this character using archive, using footage that maybe people are aware of that being out there, but no one had ever put it all together and constructed it in this kind of forensic way.

So the story was told entirely using footage, using archive and not talking heads. So that was the first one where I had this instinct that there was a way of making it feel more like a movie, and I remember at the time, to be honest, no one really believed in the idea. Everyone is like, “Documentaries, you have to have interviews, you have to see people’s faces, you need to see their eyes, you need to know when they’re telling the truth.” And I was like, “Yeah, but I can’t interview Senna because he’s not around. So I want him to narrate the story. I’m going to find a way for him to narrate the story even though he’s not alive.” And that was the kind of experiment.

I’ve made that film, then Amy came along. I got offered a lot of other sports films, including a film about Maradona. And I said, “No, I don’t want to do another school film, I’m going to repeat myself.” Then Amy comes along. I’m a Londoner, I’m a North Londoner, I lived in Camden for about 10 years. So I was very much aware of that place and what it was like at the time, and I was aware of Amy.

I didn’t know her personally, I never met her, I never saw her live, but I knew about her. I saw her on the news and I kept thinking, “Why is nobody looking after her? Why is nobody saving her? Why is no one protecting her?” That film really came out of a kind of personal question about this girl that I felt like she was in a bad way and nobody’s caring for her. That film did really well, won an Academy Award. Did really well at the box office.

So then Diego comes around back into my life and I’m thinking because the first two films were about two brilliant people who died young, I didn’t want to do that again. So I’m interested in making a film about Maradona because I love football, I’ve always watched football, and he’s still alive. He’s full of drama. He’s a really challenging, controversial character, and I suppose I’m drawn to dark characters that are outsiders. I just thought, I’m interested in doing it because this is a story about someone who’s got old, who’s had children, who’s made a lot of mistakes, but who doesn’t necessarily ever look back and admit he’s ever made a mistake.

And so all of this kind of came together for me to feel like if I’m going to do a third one, it’s got to be different. And the difference is I can meet the guy and talk to him.

So has the thought of doing something on Maradona, not necessarily this documentary right now, but just anything about him interest you or is that … I know you mentioned that around the time Amy came about, the possibility of doing something on him existed. But even before that, have you always been interested in analyzing him?

Yeah, it started much earlier actually. In 1995 I was a student at film school and I read a book about Diego and that was the germ of the idea. This book was about his life and I remember I was making short films at art school and that was when I thought, “Wouldn’t it be great one day to make a film of about Maradona?”

This idea was in the back of my head from 1995, 1996. The possibility to make the film first came up after Senna in 2012 and I just thought, “I don’t think the time’s right.” And it was after I made Amy that the project came back again and I thought, “Okay, now I’m ready to to dig into this.” And because I’m a bit older, I’m looking now back at somebody who was young … when I was young, I saw this guy play. I was very aware of him and I’m aware of everything he’s got up to, but I just felt I was now old enough to make this story about a man who did the things that he did, but also had kids, denied his children, had lots of complex issues in his latter part of your life. And I thought that’s part of the story that I was interested in digging into.

You mentioned that you are a football fan. I did a quick search of your Twitter account before we got on here…

Not hard to find who I support.

I see you’re a big Liverpool supporter, but going back to 1986, do you recall watching Maradona and England in the quarterfinals of the World Cup?

Absolutely, yeah. I was at home, my parents’ home in Hackney in London watching it. My memory of that game, well there’s a few things, but really I remember after the first goal, I didn’t see a handball straight away, but once they showed it, action replay in those days, I kept thinking the players were so annoyed and put off by the injustice of that first goal that they were not really with it by the time the second goal came around.

And also, there’s a subplot of one of our favorite players, John Barnes, played for England and he was a substitute. And I kept thinking, “Why isn’t our coach putting John Barnes on? He’ll do something.” And he actually did set up the first England goal, and unfortunately, they never made a comeback. But yeah, I remember very clearly watching that at my parents home.

Let’s get into the film a bit. How much time did you spend finding various clips and what were the sources for the various things that you ended up finding and using?

The film took about three years, so a lot of time is spent doing research, meeting people, interviewing people. I have a great team who’d go around reading books in Italian and in Spanish. We went to Argentina, we went to Naples, we went to Barcelona. There were interviews done with people all over the world to try to piece together this narrative, so a lot of effort and time goes into finding a way to show the story and a lot of the material in the film has never been seen before.

This material may have been shot 30 years ago. Some of it’s on VHS, some of it’s on pneumatics, some of it’s audio. A lot of it has not been seen since it was first shot because it’s been in back rooms on a format that’s now defunct, so we had to find the machines to actually play the tapes in order to digitize the footage to tell the story.

How much time did you spend with Maradona as you were working on this project and what were his thoughts as everything was being compiled? And then has he seen the finished product?

So part of the deal, once my producers were able to get a deal with him for his image rights and access to this footage, was that I would have nine hours to talk to Diego. At the time he was living in Dubai. So I flew to Dubai, I met him about four or five times, and we would go to his home, and he’d be sat on the sofa, and we would interview him. Wasn’t easy to begin with, but actually as we went along, it got better and better. Whenever you hear his voice in the film, that’s from the interviews that we did, and I felt like we got him to talk about things that he’s never really talked about before.

My plan was always to save one interview up and then show him the film. Once we had a film, but before it was finalized, go back to Dubai, show him the film, and do the last interview. That was always the intention. Just my luck, just as I’m planning to go to Dubai, he starts to suddenly start moving around the world. And his people said, “Oh no, you can’t come now, try next week or try next month. Oh, he’s about to go to Columbia. And now he’s going to be in Moscow for the World Cup. Oh, and now he’s going to be in Belarus.” The next minute he took a job coaching in Mexico in Sinaloa and he was there for like a year and a half or something.

He’s now just gone to Argentina. I was in Argentina last week and I’m still trying to show him the film and I couldn’t get to him for whatever reason, whether or not he’s too busy, or if people are not interested, or he doesn’t even know who I am, or he’s worried about what’s in the film. Whatever the reason might be, I’ve not been able to show him the film, and therefore, I haven’t done what I would say I wanted to, that final interview, which was his reaction to what was in the movie.

I mean, at the same time though, that is just so Diego Maradona, he’s so all over the place.

Right, exactly. When I made Senna, the Senna estate were very interested in seeing the film. When I made Amy, the estate for Amy were very interested in seeing the film. You make a film about Diego Maradona and he’s alive, so everybody assumes he’s going to want to have an opinion on the film.

Well, I remember in Cannes there was all this talk about, “Oh, you’ve made the official version of your film.” And I’m like, the guy has not seen it. How can he have approved it or not, you know? So yes, that’s just typical. He will always do the opposite of what you expect.

There are two quotes that really jumped out to me that I think that summed up Diego Maradona, and I want to get your thoughts on both of them. The first one came from him. It’s when he said right after his transfer to Napoli, “I am more interested in glory than money.” How does that quote kind of sum up both the legend and the struggles of Diego Maradona in your mind?

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Even that quote is split in two because he says, “I’m more interested in glory than money.” And then the journalist says, “That’s a nice fur coat you’re wearing.” He says, “Well, it’s a bit cold and I needed something cozy.” So even there, there is a sort of joke in there, which is that he is interested in success. He’s not interested in money, but if you listen, he knows what he’s worth. He’s been the most expensive transfer ever twice. He spent a lot of his life traveling the world, going to places like Dubai, going to places like working in Mexico in Sinaloa. Basically, he’s gone where people will pay him. So you know money is an important part of his life because he doesn’t come from money. Initially he came from a very poor, tough background.

It is a bit of a contradiction and there is a slight irony in that because he loves his Rolexes, he loves a fur coat, and he saying, “I’m not interested in money.” But he’s earned it. He can spend it however he wants. He loves the Ferrari as well, by the way, which is the other gag in the film where he says, “I asked for a Ferrari and I got a Fiat.”

I think he was interested in proving himself and showing people how brilliant he was, and he only really had one period of his life where he could do that. He wins the World Cup, which is undisputed, the best solo performance by any player ever. And I think almost more importantly winning the championship in Italy, which was the toughest championship that’s probably ever been, with a team called Naples, which have never won before or since, is an amazing achievement.

And then the second quote, and I cut off the last sentence or two here, but it’s from Fernando Signorini: “I worried that there was Diego and there was Maradona. Diego was a kid who had insecurities, a wonderful boy. Maradona was the character he had to come up with in order to face the demands of the football business and the media.”

Is that something that subconsciously you think you knew going into all of this? And which side of him interested you more?

Honestly when I went into the film, I just knew this guy does crazy things and is quite controversial. I had no idea who I was going to meet, I had no idea whether he would remember anything, I had no idea if he’d talk to me. So I didn’t know who I was going to be talking to or seeing.

Then during the interviews, this idea of Diego … a lot of people who knew him and spent a lot of time with him would say, “I wish you’d go back to the guy that he used to be. He was such a sweet guy and then he became something else.” And they use this sort of figure of speech, which I didn’t really understand a lot. It was really Signorini, when I spoke to him, who nailed it and said there was Diego and there’s Maradona. One of the guys I loved, I’d go anywhere with him. The other guy, I didn’t want to go anywhere near. And that was Maradona, and that’s the most famous person, most famous footballer in the world. Once he said that, I thought, “Ah, I think we can do something with that. I think I finally found an angle on this movie.” Because to be honest, I was struggling at the time. I didn’t know what a story would be.

With Senna, he had a very obvious external life. We had this guy, Alain Prost, who was a teammate, they hated each other. They drove differently, they lived their life differently, they believed in different things. Amy, she had people around her. They were people who maybe made decisions that were not the best for her. There was the press and the media, again, very obvious external issues and characters I could show.

With Maradona, you always felt like, “What’s the story? Who are these people that are key? Is somebody making him do the stuff? Why does he keep doing these crazy things? Why does he seem to make these choices?” And then you realize, no, it’s all him. Nobody has ever been able to make him do anything he doesn’t want to do, and there’s this internal battle, this internal struggle that’s gone on. He’s one of those guys that would talk about himself in the third person back when he was 17, 18 years old. “You know, if Maradona is not happy, then Maradona will move on to somewhere where Maradona is loved.” That kind of thing.

So Signorini is saying that. It suddenly was a little bit of a light bulb moment where I thought, “Ah, this is going to be different to the other films,” and actually more difficult I think. More tricky because, how do I show the same person, but have two sides to a personality? I thought that was an interesting concept, a psychological idea that I thought a lot of musicians or rock stars or actors have to create a persona, but it’s not really them. They’re doing it to protect themselves. I thought that was an interesting thing for an athlete to do.

And then once we started to meet and talk and interview him, I guess if you imagine the character who’s on a spectrum — on one end, you’ve got young Diego, and on the other end you’ve got Maradona, I guess I was talking to the guy at the end of the spectrum where he’s full on Maradona, but I’m making a film about a young guy called Diego who arrived in Naples.

So at times when I was interviewing Diego Maradona, I almost felt like the person I was in the presence of, talking to, and interviewing was not really the same person I was making a movie about.

What was it about Naples — and this is something that gets touched on in the film, but I’d like it in your own words — that made it such a perfect marriage between a player and club? Not even player and club, player and city.

It’s a really amazing, incredible city with very kind of glorious history, but has been suffering. Just before Diego got there actually, there was an earthquake. They were having to rebuild the city. It’s got a history of, in recent years, a lot of kind of economic problems and poverty. There’s a kind of underworld, which supposedly infiltrated every part of society. It was one of the most violent places in Europe, it was the poorest city probably in Europe. There was a gang war going on at the time.

So to have a city like that and have never won anything in their history, to get the most expensive and best footballer in the world from Barcelona, is just inexplicable, really, that that ever happened. But it’s partly because nobody in the north, the rich cubs, wanted him or nobody could afford him. And somehow Naples got the money and he ends up there. So this meeting of a guy who has been built up has being the best player in the world, but hasn’t succeeded in Barcelona. He then has to find somewhere else to go.

No one else wants him because he’s already got a bit of a reputation of partying, and going out, and not behaving himself, and not listening to his coaches. He ends up going to a place that he knows nothing about. Goes there because he thinks he’s going to get peace and quiet and ends up in one of the craziest, most dysfunctional cities in Europe, but who were desperately searching for a hero. Looking for a saint, looking for someone to win, to make them proud, to help them fight the north. There’s all of this story in here. You couldn’t make it up, it was the perfect meeting. He needed them, they needed him.

But also they kind of give him so much freedom, and put him up on this pedestal, and turn him into a god when he does succeed. But that becomes a problem, they don’t say no to him. He can do what he wants, when he wants, and he has ultimate freedom, which is never good for anyone. So he kind of flies too high to the sun, you know? He gets too close and of course everything is going to crumble. If you don’t have any boundaries, if you don’t have any one saying no, if you don’t have people looking after you, and just giving you everything you want, then it’s going to go bad. And that’s what happened.

What was your favorite thing that didn’t make it into the film?

There’s a lot of footage of him young that I really like. I mean, in terms of a U.S. context, there’s this incredible footage of him being in New York and walking down a street and like nobody knows who this guy is. So by now he’s already incredibly famous around the world and he’s just walking along the street and he looks like something out of Taxi Driver. He looks so amazing.

New York is very different now — there’s one point where he walks around the corner and you see the twin towers in the background. Nobody stops him on the street. One woman recognizes him, that’s about it, I think. And he just looks like he’s having a real good time. Now he’s not allowed to go to the U.S. because he’s had drug convictions. He’s been banned from going there. So that’s something that really stood out that didn’t make the cut.

There’s a lot of footage like that, which we’ve got, which we’ll be eventually releasing, as DVD extras or blu-rays and things like that, there’s a lot of beautiful stuff. But that sequence of him in America always made me smile.

And the last question, and this is maybe the hardest question I’ve asked, is he the greatest footballer to ever live?

Look, on my generation, because I’m a guy who kind of grew up in the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, I would say he is. And the reason being, because I never saw Pele play and there’s another great player, Johan Cruyff, who had a massive influence on football, but they were before my time. And now you’ve got people like Messi and Ronaldo who are amazing, who are brilliant. But the reason they can be brilliant is because no one’s allowed to touch you anymore. Football’s different, the pitches are different, you can’t foul anyone.

Maradona is from a generation where people would literally try and break your ankles and he would bounce up and keep playing. And the fact that he did win the World Cup, which Messi and Ronaldo haven’t done yet. He’s won it in probably the best solo performance that anyone has ever given. And because he won the toughest league championship in Italy in the ’80s with a team that had never won anything before or since, I think that’s what makes him stand out.

Nowadays, players will only go to teams where they’re surrounded by brilliant players and where they’re guaranteed to win. So they go to a few rich teams in every league and they may swap teams, but essentially would always go to the ones who were guarantee to win.

Diego went to the team that was about to be relegated. The team was one game away in the previous season from ending up in the second division, and he goes there and within three years he wins the championship twice. So I think that’s why he stands out, and he did it, hardly ever training. When you watch the film you realize how he was living off the pitch, he was not the most professional.

The reason why I think he’s great is because he’s a charismatic character that lived life to the fullest. He’s not the most professional, there were other players that have done that. He’s not won the most World Cups, he’s not won the world player of the year or stuff like that, that everyone does now.

He’s great because he was different, and I think he was an outsider and he didn’t even look like an athlete. And yet he did great things. That’s what makes him so special.

‘Diego Maradona’ airs Tuesday, October 1st on HBO.