Wednesday 17 July 2019

Tommy Conlon: 'The seven deadly sins were not nearly enough temptation for Maradona'

Diego Maradona raises the World Cup trophy in 1986. Photo: Getty Images
Diego Maradona raises the World Cup trophy in 1986. Photo: Getty Images

Tommy Conlon

It says something for the limitations of reality that hard evidence eventually becomes inadequate against the power of mythology. Seeing and believing through the empirical evidence of your own two eyes is not enough to keep your perspective grounded in fact. When someone possesses a miraculous talent, no amount of seeing is sufficient to hold back the human imagination.

Diego Maradona belongs to the television age. He was captured man and boy by rolling cameras, in public and in private, yet such was his divine spark that he became mythical right in front of our eyes: half-man, half-deity.

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He didn't need the benedictions of fond nostalgia to become legend. He didn't need the vacuum that oral folklore occupied in the time before reading and writing, and which invariably would elevate certain people into mythology, unhindered by stats and facts and truths and other mundanities.

Maradona became mythical despite being scrutinised and recorded all the time, all over the globe. His transcendent talent had a transcending effect on those who worshipped him as a godhead of the world's most popular pastime.

"Diego, you are greater than the Pope!" shouts some Italian fan as he is mobbed by people and media on his way to a TV studio in 2004. The scene is included in a riveting new documentary now showing in cinemas. "That's not saying much," he fires back nonchalantly, without a hint of a self-deprecating smile.

The retort is not necessarily a reflection of his views on the papacy of John Paul II. Maybe he merely believes that a comparison with any pope is beneath his dignity as the supreme being in this earthly kingdom.

And this despite the fact that by 2004 he has become the bloated wreck of a man whom everyone knows has lived a far from Godly life. If he had the feet of angels, he had the appetites of a hedonist for whom the seven deadly sins were not nearly enough temptation.

The profuse extravagance on-field was matched by his infamously gluttonous excesses elsewhere. Diego Maradona is the latest work by British film-maker Asif Kapadia, the director of acclaimed documentaries on Ayrton Senna and Amy Winehouse.

When the boy wonder first emerged to national prominence in Argentina, he was already being touted as "the new Pelé". But watching the little bull's sorcery again is to be left wondering, again, if he wasn't so much the new Pelé as the new Robert Johnson. For the mythology has it that Johnson sold his soul to the devil at a crossroads at midnight in Mississippi to become the king of the blues, a guitar magus whose fingers played the chords with not a divine but satanic spark. In return for becoming a seer of this night music, the devil took him back at the age of 27, in 1938.

And watching Maradona perform his ghost notes, his phantom feints and escapes, one surrenders to the mythology once more and becomes open to believing that he too sold his soul to some dark stranger at midnight, perhaps in a Buenos Aires slum whilst a band played the Tango in a nearby shebeen. In return, he was gifted the left foot that launched a million gasps of incredulity and delight. And the price? In the Johnson fable, Lucifer promises him he will be "able to make a sound nobody ever heard before. You want to be the King of the Delta Blues and have all the whiskey and women you want?" Johnson replies: "That's a lot of whiskey and women, Devil-Man."

Maradona was okay with the women part of the deal but evidently bartered the whiskey for cocaine. Hanging out with the Camorra, the local branch of the Mafia in Naples, they supplied and he snorted an Alp of snow.

Eventually the cops caught him on a wire-tap ordering another delivery of the old devil's dandruff and he was run out of Italy. Diego's Faustian pact had another very modern twist: fame. He was tormented by it. In scene after scene in the film, he has microphones and cameras thrust in his face - almost literally in his face. It is astonishing how unprotected he was, with not even a couple of bodyguards to preserve his personal space.

Reporters and fans are actually handling him, touching him, preventing him from walking. His personal space is routinely invaded. And most of the time he is remarkably phlegmatic about it, as if there is nothing he can do about it or should do about it; he just seems to accept that as part of the deal he negotiated that night at the crossroads.

But his relationship with fame seemed similar to the one with his narcotic of choice, being addicted to the public love whilst hating it for what it was doing to him. He revelled in the adulation but it brought chaos and egomania. "As a mad man, no one can beat me," he remarks at one stage, showing at least a momentary flash of self-awareness. In all the madness, he led Napoli to the club's only two Italian championships and of course, in the summer of 1986, carried the Argentine national team to the World Cup. "When you're on the pitch, life goes away," he says. But what he did on the pitch had enormous consequences beyond it. The anarchy of his talent could not be confined to the boundaries of a playing field.

If his successor in genius, Lionel Messi, was institutionalised into wizardry by the Barcelona system, Maradona was detonated into it by his own radical dazzling verve and emotional pyrotechnics. The cocktail propelled him into an orbit that only made the repeat crash landings all the more spectacular.

But he had one more trick to play. Unlike the king of the blues, he did not pay the debt back with his young life. His crazy soul has not yet been claimed. Maybe it is too hot to handle, even in hell.

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