That Kusturica’s documentary Maradona, chronicling perhaps world football’s biggest personality, begins with shots of the director playing his guitar at a concert, is telling. Introduced by his band as “the Maradona of the guitar,” it is clear, in retrospect, that what comes after is as much a defense of Kusturica as much as it is about the greatness of Maradona.
And this undertone is not surprising, considering the infamy preceding Kusturica–often accused of being a Milosevic idolizer and apologist for the Yugoslav civil war (not to mention the accusations of genocide that go hand-in-hand with it). To give some idea, Slovenian theorist and talking head Slavoj Zizek (evidently, not a fan of Kusturica’s) dedicates a chapter called “The Poetics of Ethnic Cleansing” to Kusturica’s films in his book The Plague of Fantasies.
A subtle moment presents us with this reality: when Maradona comes to visit him in Serbia, Kusturica’s voiceover relates his imperial indignation (specially relating to the Falklands/Malvinas war in which Argentine forces were pummeled by the British) to that of NATO bombing his own country. This feeling of injustice, of being hard done by thanks to the international conspiracy, is a thread uniting Emir and Diego, though, as we see during the film, the footballer’s case is quite a bit more compelling; rather than apology, Maradona shoots from the hip in his clearly stated ideology.
The larger than life Maradona speaks at length about his political stance, especially against imperialism. In some stirring scenes, he speaks before hundreds of thousands in the streets of Buenos Aires at an anti-globalization rally, alongside Evo Morales, Hugo Chávez (who chants Maradona to the riled-up crowd) and other South American leftist leaders. He tells of his audience with Fidel Castro, and his admiration for Che and the Cuban Revolution, his love for Cuba, and his adoration of the proletariat, all with convincing authenticity.
Yet at the same time, there are moments of ambiguity. At one point, Maradona, chatting with a panel, mentions his [now ex-]wife (also in the room), saying “I’ve always been the better looking of the pair.” One is left wondering if we are before a moment of humorous self-deprecation, or whether the man who admits he is God means it. At another point, in a one-on-one interview with Kusturica, he urges the interviewer to “image what I could have been if it weren’t for the cocaine.” Having seen plenty of glimpses of his personality, you wonder if the cocaine was an essential part of his wildly ego-centric character on the field, and if he wouldn’t have been the same, brilliant footballer without being locked in the spiral of self-absorption fueled by substance abuse. Or would he have taken Argentina to even more World Cup glory, or S.S.C. Napoli to European dominance?
At another point in the film, he actually expresses his regret for cocaine and substance abuse, if only because it kept him from being a better father to his two daughters. At the same time, he directly blames the fact that he was caught on conspiracies (quite believable, considering the recent history of Italian football institutions and the farcical refereeing scenes at the 2002 World Cup). His first big drug suspension came in 1991–the year after he knocked Italy out of the World Cup, their World Cup, played in Italy, which, according to “God,” was rigged for Italy to win. His 1994 suspension at the World Cup (for ephedrine use,which he claims resulted from an energy drink) was, according to him, the will of João Havelange, FIFA president at the time, and a supporter of Pelé (naturally, both Brazilians).
This latter face of Maradona, that of the unrepentant, unapologetic, regret-less revolutionary who fights a war against the power structures that try to control the world, is the most endearing face of his. The throngs of fans who follow his every move, who mob him when he returns to Naples just to get a glimpse of him, who founded the Church of Maradona, create a cult of personality whose beginning and end are confused by the infectious stardom of D10S (Dios). This godlike apparition seems to perpetuate itself.
Soon after his return home from one of his health issues, thousands gathered in the street to cheer him while he appears like the Pope at his apartment balcony–though he is a spiritual leader for them, he also appears like a God. The masses begin to chant his name rhythmically in a stadium song, and Maradona, Dios himself, bounces up and down, dancing at the will of his people like a fat little puppet. In a day and age where liberal, secular, democracy rules the “first world,” the worship of Maradona hearkens back to a time when it was believed that human intervention could convince the gods, when a dance could conjure rain or a curse could sow disorder.
It is at this interstice of reason, this space of unrestrained megalomania, that the cult of Maradona makes more sense than ever. Beyond criticism, beyond political correctness, beyond self-regulation and biopolitics, we are presented with a figure who poses a refreshing, empowering, and revolutionary alternative. At the same time, between the lines, we see the shadows of another figure from this similar vein, and we cannot help but be wary of what accompanies it, from the killing fields of Yugoslavia, to the chaos of the Argentine national team under Maradona.