High in the mountains of central Mexico, an obscure second division football team, Los Dorados de Sinaloa, had just beaten another, even more obscure team. Their manager hobbled painfully on a crutch towards a band of 20 ecstatic away fans, a 100-watt smile lighting up his face, a picture of joy. “Diego, Diego,” screamed the fans. Victory and adoration – the adrenaline that drove Diego Maradona all his life. Minutes later in the changing room, he dropped his crutch and, like Lazarus, began to dance freely to his beloved cumbia music, finding an astonishing rhythm with his players.
For the Netflix docuseries Maradona in Mexico, we spent nine months filming him in his unlikely reincarnation there, witnessing that joy, that passion, that excess and wondering whether he wouldn’t suddenly keel over mid-dance. Here was the fiery determination, drama and intensity that had driven him as a player 30 years earlier. Here was the courage to outwit crude attempts to hack him down, combined with the generosity that made team-mates love him. In his dance was a life force, also found in the raw, unapologetic howl he released watching his beloved Boca Juniors score in distant Buenos Aires.
Yet Diego also knew we were filming. There was a shrewd intelligence in operation amid the fireworks. Everything was real but also performance, like so much in his life. In Culiacán in provincial Mexico, one of the most famous people in the world was playing out a ghostly remake of the storylines of his earlier life: the football with unlikely triumphs and dramatic failures; the addictions, now just drink and not drugs, except for the mountain of painkillers and tablets to help him get up in the morning; finally, the family traumas, the break-up from a long-term girlfriend and the arrival of a former partner and their son.
Culiacán, Sinaloa was a relief from the weight of Argentina, a nation that fuelled his messianic sense of fate and triumph as well as inevitable disaster. He loved being able to go shopping alone. But even in Mexico, there it sometimes became too much. The Mexican fans, who adored him as the majestic footballer who had reigned over their 1986 World Cup, were equally capable of showering him in abuse. After he had lost a final, grown men and women surrounded him chanting: “Diego sucks cock”, all the while desperately reaching out towards him with their phones to take a selfie. When he snapped and confronted them, those same phones plastered the evidence over YouTube and morning TV shows across the globe. Amid all the noise, the fans, even his friends, he often seemed profoundly alone.
He could be monstrously egotistical. Those closest to him were often the ones hurt most. His treatment of his family and those who loved him could be outrageous, never to be simply excused by genius. And a changing room speech to his tearful players after a lost final was Shakespearean in its self-pity. Yet at heart one sensed a generous soul, who wanted to give, both to those around him and to the world. The closer he was to the pitch the easier he found it. He said to us: “I am not perfect. Sometimes I am confronted by things I do not understand. But in football, I am not scared of anything.”
In his tribute to Maradona, the Italian journalist Massimo Gramellini wrote how Diego went to Corrado Ferlaino, the president of Napoli, to demand proper payment for kids who had been promoted to the senior team. Fobbed off, Diego stood “in the anteroom all afternoon. He returned the next day, and the day after, until Ferlaino opened the door, and his wallet.” In Culiacán, the president of Dorados, Tono Núñez told a similar story of Diego demanding a pay rise for a midfielder he had introduced to the senior squad, when he learned he came from a family of poor farmers. Núñez talked about how Diego never forgot what it was to be a player. He spoke their language, never too grand or famous to support them, to joke or to celebrate the birth of their children. They loved him for it. They were becoming a small part of his legend.
There is an image that will never leave me of him playing games with his son under the sprinklers. Pure, unalloyed, childish glee. Ten-year-old Diego surely fulfilled his dreams: the goals, the girls, the drugs and his own box at Boca Juniors. Amid the ocean of words about Diego, perhaps Eric Cantona, speaking in 1995, captured him best: “In a hundred years when we talk about football we will talk about Maradona, as now when we talk about music we talk about Mozart.”