The Return of Maradona

By | October 15, 2009

Now that Argentina has (just barely) secured its spot in the 2010 World Cup after a tortuous and rocky qualifying run, fans of Argentina can breathe a little easier. One fan found occasion for an instant Youtube celebration of the last-minute goal against Uruguay, which shows an ecstatic Maradona jumping for joy. With his red scarf trailing behind him, he looks like a kid dressed up as Superman. He’s headed to South Africa, where as Peter Alegi writes, he hopes to fulfill a long-time dream: meeting Nelson Mandela.

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But of course, inevitably, the criticisms of Maradona (many of them justified) will no doubt continue. This is football, after all. And, more to the point, this is Maradona. If the player-turned-addict-turned-rehabilitated-coach is who he is, and what he is, it is precisely because he has always stirred up so much intensity among both his fans and his detractors. In Maradona by Kusturica, which we screened this past Tuesday at Duke as part of the Soccer Politics Series, the footballer seems to have met his match in the film-maker Kusturica, whose punchy and relentless style is as polarizing among viewers as Maradona’s playing was. But Maradona is, as the film itself hints, a better film character than any even the powerful imagination of Kusturica could have conjured up.

Here’s the preview, as well as a nice clip from the film of Manu Chao singing a celebratory song to Maradona in Buenos Aires.

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The film, though presented at Cannes, had a relatively subdued run in Europe, and a whiny tone shaped many of the English-language reviews published in the U.K., such as this one in the Independent. That’s not surprising, since — as Joaquin Bueno noted on this blog in a recent post — if anyone hates Maradona and can’t stop talking about how much they hate him it is a certain sector of opinion in England, for whom the 1986 “Hand of God” goal still registers as one of the great travesties in the history of football. In the film, Maradona joyously declares that with the goal, he felt liked he had picked the pocket of an Englishman, and explains that the Argentinian team went on the field with the idea that they were playing to avenge the dead soldiers killed by the British during the Falklands War four years earlier. And of course the film, complete with Sex Pistols-driven punk-style cartoons of Maradona infuriating Thatcher, the Queen, and Prince Charles, is not calibrated to ingratiate British viewers, though of course one can imagine that many of them would enjoy it precisely for this reason.

The film, which as of yet has no distribution in the U.S. — Netflix promises its release on DVD at some unspecified point in the future — is not tender with the U.S. either, though most of the hostility is directed at George Bush in tones that wouldn’t necessarily displease many a North American audience and would be right at home in a Michael Moore film. Critics of FIFA, meanwhile, will also enjoy some of Maradona’s barbs directed at figures like Havelange and Blatter.

Some critics have lamented that the film fails to find a coherent form, though I disagree. Ultimately what makes the film so great is precisely its irrepressible form as well as its uncomprimising celebration of Maradona. It’s not necessarily because I am as crazy about Maradona as Kusturica is — though the footage of his goals in the film is enough to win over more than one convert — but because it captures more closely than any other I know both the incomprehensible grace and the liberating madness of football.

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