Diego Maradona tears a piece of paper, then again, until it is in shreds. On a screen opposite, the team he manages are minutes from victory in the first leg of a final tie – yet his stare is within. Maradona has been sent off for arguing with the fourth official, needlessly but because he cares – passionately.
“I told him there was an elbow to the head,” he reflects aloud. “The San Luís trainer told me to shut my mouth. I said: ‘Really? Do you know how many games I’ve played?’ I’m not perfect. No one’s perfect. Sometimes I’m confronted by things I can’t control. But be clear: I’m a good man. I want to improve football, for the good of people.”
This is the opening scene to a seven-part series, Maradona in Mexico, launched on Netflix this week, following Diego’s year as manager of Dorados de Sinaloa of the Mexican second division. The team is headquartered in Culiacán, fortress of the Sinaloa Cartel of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, jailed in the USA. A bizarre circumstance, given that which made Diego almost as infamous as his wizardry at football made him famous – cocaine.
“It was too crazy to be true,” says the series director, Angus Macqueen. “Maradona, a coke addict, going to the world capital of cocaine.” But, as the club’s assistant press officer Oycé Leal says, welcoming Diego at a charity dinner: “When we heard Maradona was coming, everyone thought the obvious would happen, regarding the city’s reputation for organised crime, drug trafficking and Diego’s past history. But he’s turned out to be completely different. He’s identified with a city that people thought would be the death of him. Culiacán is rescuing Maradona in an unimaginable way.”
Just as he rescued the team, taking them from bottom of the league to an epic challenge for promotion.
In his speech, Maradona responds: “They said I only came here for a holiday. No, I came to get us promoted. But my footballing commitment here is not only about the ball. It’s about people who are in need, who’ve also lost many things.” Diego found a home of sorts in Culiacán – not because of its cocaine industry, but because of the resilience of people who live with its ravages.
So the films are about football, but not “about states of emotion”, says Macqueen, “in someone who expresses emotion with such clarity”. They’re about Maradona, but also a marvellous supporting cast of players, radio commentators, and club officials, markedly the president, Antonio Nuñez, whose dream was to “make it that when you googled Culiacán, the Dorados would come above Chapo Guzmán”. For that to happen, he solicited Maradona, got him “and all that signifies”.
And crucially: the cast of citizens in a city that only two weeks ago was locked down by units of cartel gunmen after the army seized Guzmán’s son Olvidio before being outgunned and releasing him. Also a city of families at the funfair, teenagers in discos – and fans watching football.
There’s been much noise around Asif Kapadia’s feature on Maradona, and there will be more if it is nominated for an Oscar. Kapadia scores the open goal of assembling a riveting video scrapbook, but tells little about Maradona’s inner world, less about his time in Naples we didn’t know 27 years ago, or what happened since and damn-all about football: it’s like a film on Jimi Hendrix dying of drugs that ignores how he played the guitar.
By contrast, these films explore real-life Diego: fervent, complex, charming, impassioned, sentimental and endearingly unhinged. For someone – which I am – who watched Maradona every other Sunday in Naples for two years, drop-jawed, it’s this footage from Mexico that achieves riveting insight, eyeball-to-eyeball.
We observe not only Maradona’s magnetism and mania, his presence and resonance, but also occult insight into football itself. Kapadia is about how the mafia devoured Maradona the footballer – we know that; this is about how Maradona the manager ignored the mafia and forged a football team.
There are priceless vignettes: Maradona’s likeness as a birthday cake, into which the players plunge his face; “you are my family,” he beams, covered in icing. During training he scores from the goal line, curving the ball; he can still do it, and is poignantly rapturous. But never more ecstatic than when watching a Boca Juniors victory on television. Diego confesses that his dream is another chance to manage Argentina.
Maradona rasps with the Buenos Aires barrio dialect he never lost, sadly smothered in an awful dubbed version – it’s essential to see that in the original Spanish, subtitled. He waddles through the series with a spare tyre around his waist; he walks visibly in pain, from arthritis [for which he gobbles painkillers and undergoes plentiful physio]. Yet he’s always dancing: with the players, a cumbia on the pitch with Ms Leal. (Diego always wore his heart on his face, and his speech after defeat in the first final, kicking a drinks cooler, is histrionic catharsis: “I’m even angrier than you,” he rants and weeps. “They can celebrate. Next year I want to stay with you if you want to stay with me. I love you all and I’m grateful to all of you. You honoured the Dorados badge, proudly. You know what? This hurt me a lot. That’s all.”)
During doldrums, when even the pitch becomes diseased, he is asked: “Do you see it as part of your job to keep Dorados on the front pages, given your reputation?” His reply: “If they don’t talk about Maradona, what are they going to talk about? They’ll talk about Trump, that rubber doll.”
Maradona trains Dorados with tactical insight, raw emotion and body language. He takes a desperate side, and turns them into serious competition. He insists on “rhythm”. “Don’t do it for Maradona,” he urges before a game in Tijuana. “Do it for football!” But of course they are, palpably, “doing it” for Diego, “knowing”, says Macqueen, “that they, in Mexico’s second division, have become part of the history of Maradona”.
Maradona is self-aware from the start. Before a game in episode one, he is asked: “What’s the hardest thing about being you?” His response is visceral: “The most difficult thing is having people around all the time. People surrounding me. Though when I was ill, when I had my problem with drugs, I felt like the loneliest man on earth.”
Eleven months is enough time with Maradona to win trust and the confessional insights that come with it. In the penultimate episode there is confrontation with his own failures, talking about his two daughters, Dalma and Giannina. “There’s one person who saved me from the drugs,” he says. “Giannina Leonora Maradona, my youngest. She’d grab the sheet and say: ‘Dad!’ But I was comatose. ‘Dad, Dalma played with you. I want to play with you too!’ I was in a coma. Even in the clinic, I was still thinking about drugs, and this tiny, dark skinned, beautiful thing, told me the right words: ‘Daddy, play with me like you played with Dalma.’”
The comic graphic title sequences and deployment of Mexican corrido songs give the series a jaunty touch; “let’s not take this too seriously”, says Macqueen. But two serious rip-tides cut beneath the surface.
One is about football as passe-partout, key to doors that wouldn’t otherwise open – and safe passage in dangerous places. We all know that football starts conversations with taxi drivers and market-stall holders, wherever. But football has also saved my life on occasions, striking up the apposite conversation at gunpoint in war zones; football changes the subject, and people forget to kill you.
More journalists are killed working in Mexico than in Syria, but Macqueen and his long-time collaborator Guillermo Galdos can hang out with a camera in places where a journalist’s every step is watched, only because they’re making a film about football.
Villa Juárez is a hotspot in Sinaloa’s deadly internecine turf wars, whence midfielder Pedro Rentería comes, taking Macqueen’s crew to watch boys kick about in the dust like he did, then a gunfight on his phone during which “the truck getting shot up was just over there by the red wall”. (He adds: “When they said [Maradona] was coming, we didn’t believe it. I identify with him; many of us are from a poor background like him.”)
The other serious undercurrent concerns Mexico’s narco-war itself: the death toll of 306,000 since president Felipe Calderón assailed the cartels in 2006 is three times that of, say, the war in Bosnia during the 1990s. Yet this new kind of 21st century war rages in apparent peacetime in a wonderful and beguiling country where invariably warm-hearted people go to market, to mass – and to watch football.
Usually, reports from places like Sinaloa are about the violence with “normal” life at the margins. But these films are about an important slice of that normal life, “this time, with the war at the edges,” says Macqueen.
It’s a Mexico I inhabit joyfully: how thrilling to find, in episodes one and three, two stadiums – at Tijuana and Ciudad Juárez – wherein I’ve watched games over just the past month while covering – but escaping – that war.
The war is never far away. The films will suddenly cut from a football dressing room or player’s kitchen to another bloodied corpse behind another police cordon. (War seeps into the narrative: before the final, an Ultrà from the Dorados’ Esquadrón Aurinegro crew jokes: “Chapo Guzmán’ll escape just to watch the game!”)
That’s the beauty of it: David Faitelson of ESPN concludes, in episode six: “Look what Maradona has done. What he’s shown us here in Mexico is that he’s a person who works, and created a team that plays and competes just like he did.”
And all this “in a city with a global reputation for conflict and narcotrafficking – that’s where Diego had to go to give life to a football team. Incredible. The city where they traffic the very substance that almost ended his life.”
Promotion from Mexico’s second division to the top flight is decided in a “finalisima” between the winners of two finals, each played at the end of the season’s halves astride a Christmas break – called the Apertura and Clausura. During Maradona’s Apertura and Clausura in Culiacán, 2018-19, both finals were between his Dorados and San Luís Potosí. It is not for me to reveal the outcome of the crucial second final here – the tension is at times unbearable, not only for the viewer, but Diego himself, who during one game leaves the stands to which he has been banished after the sending-off, unable to take the suspense.