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Filmmaker Richard Sanders Remembers Soccer Player Diego Maradona

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

This morning, we are remembering one of the greatest sports stars of all time. Diego Maradona died on Wednesday at the age of 60. He reportedly had a heart attack. The Argentine was one of the greatest soccer players in history. At the 1986 World Cup, he scored what is often called the goal of the century.

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UNIDENTIFIED COMMENTATOR: (Speaking Spanish).

GREENE: "Genius, genius, genius," that commentator is screaming as Maradona weaves his way through England's defense. Now, minutes before that, he scored arguably the most controversial goal in soccer history - using his hand. And that sort of summed him up - a magician, a maverick, always in the headlines.

Filmmaker Richard Sanders knew the man personally. He was part of the production team that brought us "Maradona: Kicking The Habit," a film that told his story. And he interviewed the soccer great on a number of occasions. And he's with us now. Richard, thanks for being here.

RICHARD SANDERS: Thank you for having me.

GREENE: So what made Maradona so special on the soccer field?

SANDERS: He had a combination of everything. He had an extraordinary pace. He had extraordinary skill. He was also a wonderfully intelligent and instinctive football player. And he was a wonderful team player as well. You know, none of his teammates had a single bad word to say against him. He was a wonderful team player.

GREENE: But, I mean, he was known for - I mean, for his activities off the field as much as his soccer playing. And his life was complicated, if we can use that word. I mean, can you talk to us about some of what he went through?

SANDERS: So the film I worked on 20 years ago, we filmed in Cuba and in Buenos Aires. Now, Maradona at that time was only just 39. He hadn't stopped playing that long before. But he was already having problems with his heart. He'd had a stroke or a minor heart attack or whatever, and he was in Cuba to rehabilitate, to try and kick his cocaine habit. That was the fundamental problem Diego had. He was addicted to cocaine. And as he always said, you know, imagine how good a player I'd have been if I hadn't been addicted to cocaine. And in a strange way, the whole of Argentinian self-respect, to a degree, began to rest on Maradona. And I think Diego struggled with that.

GREENE: But not everyone rooted for him. I mean, he was beloved by so many people but also loathed by many. I mean, what was the fascination? What was the draw to this man for so many people?

SANDERS: Well, of course, you're talking to an Englishman, and I think if he is loathed anywhere, it's in England because of the famous, the infamous, hand of God goal in 1986.

GREENE: Yeah.

SANDERS: Even here, though, I think most people would recognize the beauty of the second goal outshines the problems with the first goal.

GREENE: And for an Englishman to admit that is pretty significant.

SANDERS: I mean, I talked to Diego about this. The key thing with Maradona is he took very ordinary teams to the heights. Now, the game against England is the absolute cornerstone of the legend. The thing about that quarterfinal is, of course, it comes four years after the Falklands War between Britain and Argentina. Now, all the talk before the game was, of course, this is nothing about the war. This is about sport. It's not about politics.

But I remember talking to the Argentinian commentator you were quoting earlier who actually commented on that game, and he said to me, of course, it was all about the war. How could it not be about the war? And to gain sort of national revenge against England through the combination of the greatest goal ever scored in the World Cup - and it certainly is - and cheating (laughter) was almost too perfect to be true for some Argentinians.

Diego articulated this perfectly to me when I interviewed him 20 years ago. He said, in Argentina, we rather admire the pickpocket, the street kid, the street kid who gets away with it, who picks your pocket and no one sees. And I said to him, Diego, we all saw. Everyone saw (laughter). It was just the referee and the linesman who didn't see. And he just grinned at me. But that was Diego.

GREENE: (Laughter) Richard, thanks so much for talking to us. We appreciate it.

SANDERS: Thank you for having me.

GREENE: We were speaking to Richard Sanders about soccer star Diego Maradona, who has died. Richard's film was called "Maradona: Kicking The Habit." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.