“Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you, it’s much, much more important than that”.Bill Shankly, legendary manager of Liverpool FC, 1974
What would Shankly think of the current COVID-19 induced sporting coma? He was a staunch socialist and I would like to think that he would consider his words equally, if not more, poignant in this time.
So, given the current sports viewing drought, I thought it would be timely for this blog to turn to sports documentaries. Sporting personalities and drama are best captured through the use of real-life footage. These in turn, trigger our own memories of time, place and emotion – something so aptly captured in Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch.
What to Watch
First up is Asif Kapadia’s Diego Maradona (2019). The documentary focuses on Maradona’s time in the 80’s, playing for S.S.C. Napoli. We are immediately thrown into a car chase as Maradona is rushed from the airport to be presented at Stadio San Paolo. This period would represent the peak of his playing career. He would lead Napoli to their first ever Serie A Scudetto in 1986-87. Up to this point, Napoli was a very unsuccessful football team, usually found battling relegation. Naples itself was a town held in derision, considered the ‘sewer’ of Italy. Its players and fans were being met with chants of “colera chi soffre” or “cholera-sufferers” when visiting the stadiums of Milan, Turin and Rome. Maradona changed all of this and was deified for it by all Neapolitans. Unfortunately, for all his on-field success, Maradona’s personal life deteriorated through his association with the local Camorra. The Camorra is an Italian Mafia-type organised crime syndicate originating in the region of Campania and its capital Naples. As Kapadia himself offered, the second half of the documentary would play like a “gangster movie”.
The documentary also explores the increasing duality of Maradona’s personality. As his personal trainer during his Napoli days explained …
Diego was a kid who had insecurities – a wonderful boy.
Maradona was the character he had to come up with in order face the demands of the football business and the media.Fernando Signorini, personal trainer.
It became common for Maradona to refer to himself in the third person. The documentary only touches briefly on Maradona’s childhood but it is hugely instructive. He grew-up in Villa Fiorito – a slum outside Buenos Aires, with a family of seven. His father was a hard working labourer and the family had no prospects. At the age of 15, Diego was recognised for his emerging footballing skills and put on a contract that moved his entire family out of the Villa. As he would say of himself, “if it wasn’t for Maradona, I’d still be in the Villa Fiorito”.
Diego Maradona is Asif Kapadia’s third notable documentary. His break through came with Senna (2011), telling the story of the Brazilian motor-racing legend and was followed with Amy (2015), the story of Amy Winehouse and currently the highest grossing UK documentary. Kapadia is a football fan but would be the first to admit that making the sport cinematic is nearly impossible. He was very fortunate to be presented with excellent real-life footage of Maradona’s time in Naples, both on and off the field. He has used that advantage to structure a very compelling story, that I think appeals to sporting and non-sporting fans alike.
For a companion piece, I thought we would take a look at a different sport, and watch Stevan Riley’s Fire in Babylon (2010). This documentary examines the genesis of the great West Indies cricket teams of the 1970’s and 80’s. For those of us who grew up in Australia then, those teams hold particular resonance. Images of fearsome fast bowlers and dynamic batsman are firmly imprinted!
The story begins with a young team, forming under the leadership of its quietly spoken captain, Clive Lloyd. The 70’s and 80’s are also noted for the rising concept of black power and for the growing protest movements against black oppression and apartheid in particular. These ideas and movements inspired this team – socio-political expression dressed in white cricket flannels.
In 1961, thousands of Melbournians lined the streets to celebrate the Frank Worrell led West Indian team. The “Calypso” cricketers, as the players were commonly referred to, were the first West Indian team that had ventured overseas, led by a non-white captain. They lost that series.
Lloyd’s team was determined to move beyond the stereotype of losing with style – but first they had a baptism of fire.
It was Australia in 1975-76 and they took on a battle hardened Australian team, led by arguably its greatest pair of fast bowlers in Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thompson. It was barely a contest – the West Indians were clearly intimidated by Australians on both sides of the fence and met with open racist overtones.
A battered and bruised team would return to a very disappointed West Indies. Clive Lloyd declared, “never again!” As Bunny Wailer put it …
After humiliation is riches, power, might and blessing … eternally.Bunny Wailer, original member of The Wailers
Clive Lloyd’s teams as he promised, would never again be so intimidated. Two fast bowlers will be countered by three, then four. After a brief hiatus for another cricketing revolution in World Series Cricket, a fitter and more professional West Indies emerged to dominate the game. They did not lose a series for another 15 years.
Stevan Riley may not as yet have received the same recognition as Asif Kapadia, but he has perfectly captured a rare conjunction of sports and politics. As an Oxford University educated Englishman, whose country has more often than not been at the wrong end of a West Indian hiding, he is above all else, highly respectful of his subject matter.