I’m going to level with you here — before this week everything I knew about Diego Maradona could comfortably fit on a cigarette paper: footballer, Argentinian, upset England with a “hand of God” in the Eighties? Right?
So I might not be the target audience for a new Netflix documentary about the greatest footballer of all time (“other than Messi or Pelé” says a friend) but, like watching England in a World Cup semi-final, I’m happy to bandwagon-jump if things get interesting.
The premise of seven-part series Maradona in Mexico is interesting enough. With football team Dorados, in Sinaloa state, languishing in Ascenso MX (Mexico’s second division) for several years, club president José Antonio Núñez makes the PR-grabbing decision to hire the greatest footballer of all time (other than Messi or Pelé) as coach.
Now in his late fifties, Maradona’s reputation for volatility and a personal life plagued with cocaine and alcohol addiction precedes him. At the time of filming he’s just made headlines at the 2018 World Cup for throwing obscene gestures and appearing to collapse after Argentina scored, so he’s a risky choice to turn the ailing football team’s fortunes around.
The Sinaloa location also raises eyebrows — the birthplace of now-jailed drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzman and cradle of the most powerful narcotics trafficking organisation in the world. As one radio phone-in puts it, bringing Maradona to Sinaloa “feels like putting a diabetic in a candy shop”.
Nevertheless, his arrival is greeted with exultation by both players and fans in the city of Culiacán. Defender Jesús Chávez tells his pregnant wife they could name their baby Maradona, while his forward Vinicio Angulo feels an affinity with the man who, like him, “grew up in the slums, raised in a shack.”
Maradona himself is eccentric, heart-clutchingly passionate about the beautiful game and possessed of an ego pickled by decades of fame and fan worship. “The Maradona revolution begins” he says in his gravelly Spanish, “I’ve come to give you my heart. On an emotional level we’ll be hard to beat.” At first he’s right — with a legend at the helm the players are re-energised and the team starts to climb up the league.
The documentary doesn’t drill into tactics, but the stress and triumph of each pass is lived out in the diminutive, pot-bellied coach, who limps on the sidelines (joints plagued with arthritis) and kisses players on the forehead when they win. We also see the flipside of this passion in action when he’s thrown off the pitch for abusing the referee.
This might be about football, but it’s also about the loneliness of being a legend —
Maradona seems paradoxically both surrounded and alone — and a region struggling to forge an identity beyond the crippling effects of the cartels. The only drawback is the awful dubbing.
I want to hear the players’ tone and intonations, but instead of subtitles the speech fades to an American voiceover. Though a few of the football chants do flash up on the screen: “Ask for marijuana and you’ll get it,” the crowd sings when Dorados win, “we’re celebrating!”
Maradona In Mexico is on Netflix now.