'30 for 30 Soccer Stories: Maradona '86 and The Opposition'

These two soccer stories, focused on the World Cups of 1974 and 1986, reveal the politics, culpability, and legacy of FIFA in broader contexts.

30 for 30 Soccer Stories: Maradona '86

Director: Sam Blair
Cast: Daniel Cerqueira (narrator)
Rated: NR
Studio: ESPN Films
Year: 2014
US date: 2014-04-22 (ESPN)

30 for 30 Soccer Stories: The Opposition

Director: Ezra Edelman, Jeffrey Plunkett
Cast: Carlos Caszely, Leonardo Veliz, Julio Salviat, Vladimiro Mimica, Jorge Montealegre
Rated: NR
Studio: ESPN Films
Year: 2014
US date: 2014-04-22 (ESPN)

Above from 30 for 30 Soccer Stories: Maradona '86

"Soccer continues to be the art of the unforeseeable. When you least expect it, the impossible occurs." In so describing the beautiful game, journalist Eduardo Galeano underscores both its alluring mystery and perpetual hope, while you watch Diego Maradona's wholly unforeseeable play near the end of the FIFA World Cup in 1986. The grainy, old-TV footage serves as evidence of the impossible occurrence: Maradona, so ready for redemption on 29 June.

Maradona's readiness for this particular moment is the focus of 30 for 30 Soccer Stories: Maradona '86, premiering 22 April on ESPN with The Opposition (both short films are also screening at the Tribeca Film Festival this week). A lyrical assembly of found footage under narration taken from Galeano's wide-ranging historical commentary, Soccer in Sun and Shadow, Sam Blair's documentary is less about Maradona or the 1986 World Cup than it is about the very idea of the unforeseeable.

As ideas go, it's pretty abstract, but soccer, and Maradona too, serve as apt vehicles for such meditation. The film opens with a bit of pre-'86 history, another moment captured on TV, Maradona's cleats-to-the-chest foul against Italy's Joao Batista da Silva at the final five minutes mark of the final match in the 1982 World Cup. As Maradona is sent off, looking both vivid and small on screen, the announcer sums up, "The greatest player in the world leaves in disgrace." Argentina's loss that day produced outrage, anger, and a fervent desire for another opportunity. Cut ahead to 1985, as Maradona works out with the national team again, determined to capture the title. His "talent was never in question," Daniel Cerqueira reads from Galeano, "Though his erratic temperament was."

Even if you know the outcome of Argentina's return to the World Cup, this time held in Mexico's Estadio Azteca, the film creates a remarkable set of tensions. Its story of Maradona is the story of so many "erratic temperaments," pitted against larger forces and yet determined somehow to wrest control, or at least pretend that some control might be possible over the "bouncing ball." As Maradona finds ways to manipulate the ball, as it comes to him or as he must pursue it, the film suggests that he finds ways also to shape his fate, to follow the 1982 failure with a triumph in 1986. En route to the final match against Germany, the Argentinean team weathers adversity, and even finds a way to win against England in the quarter final, with a goal that even the Argentinean announcer describes as a cheat, as Maradona's hand visibly touches the ball -- more than once, in slow motion. In displaying "a mixture of cockiness and Argentine cunning," the narrator observes, Maradona is adored, "because of his prodigious acrobatics and because he was a dirty god, a sinner, the most human of the deities."

The film makes brilliant use of the archival footage, both as proof and more myth-making. Maradona wins, and at film's end, appears bouncing a beach ball globe on his forehead, a bit of imagery that matches and recalls other footage at its start, when he bounces a soccer ball on his forehead. For all his arrogance and aggression, for all his investment in the game, Maradona also reflects on the game, on the investment, in a quotation the film offers as a final screen. For all the joy of victory, for all the heroism associated with it, he says, "By winning the World Cup, we didn't change the world, we didn't bring down the price of bread. It was a lovely thought that football players can solve people's problems; I wish we could. We'd all be better off."

Image from 30 for 30 Soccer Stories: The Opposition

This wish is put to another sort of test in The Opposition, Ezra Edelman and Jeffrey Plunkett's look back at the 1974 FIFA World Cup, which set West Germany against Chile. This was the first World Cup when a players was sent off with a red card, that player being Chilean forward Carlos Caszély. His route to that moment is as circuitous and harrowing as can be imagined, shaped by the most egregious of larger forces, including the United States government.

Caszély's team lost in 1974, but his red card and their play turn out to be mere details. The broader context has to do with the stadium where the team was supposed to play off against Russia for a chance to go to the World Cup in Munich. The political dramas that altered that stadium's legacy began with the election of the popular socialist leader Salvador Allende in 1970, and turned irrevocable in 1973, with the US-supported coup d'etat (The Opposition includes ugly audio featuring the ever red-scared Nixon and Kissinger, and also asserts that Allende committed suicide with a rifle given him by Fidel Castro, over poignant footage of the president closing a door behind him).

Caszély and teammate Leonardo Véliz recall what followed, specifically, Augusto Pinochet's use of the National Stadium to detain and torture some 40,000 political prisoners. The film here interviews a couple of survivors of that detention, including journalist Vladimiro Mimica and Jorge Montealegre, a student at the time who was picked up by military police at his home. Their memories, understated and painful, provide an acute counterpoint to those of the players, whose most awful choice was put them them when Russia, knowing like all the world what was going on in the Stadium, refused to send its team for the playoff match and so forfeited the chance to go to Munich.

Caszély and the Chilean team decided otherwise, and, according to FIFA rules, went to the Stadium -- while it was being used as a concentration camp -- and kicked a single goal to advance. "Eleven of us lined up against nobody," says Caszély, the moment preserved on film, part of the "big show" ordained by Pinochet and FIFA together. "It was my profession," laments Véliz. "I wonder what would have happened if in that moment I'd had the courage to resist." No matter, he goes on, "It's over. History was written differently."

And yet, the film proposes no history is without writers, without people responsible. And so here again, Véliz and Caszély bear their burden. When Caszély's mother was taken and abused by Pinochet's forces in order to warn him not to speak out while he was in Germany, he writes at least two small pieces of that history, first refusing to shake the dictator's hand during a photo opportunity with the team arranged before the World Cup, and second, walking off the pitch in Munich following his red card, the first red card ever given in a World Cup. The Opposition shows the team on line to shake Pinochet's hand, but not Caszély. It does, however, show the red card and also, the red uniforms worn by the Chilean team, providing a harsh contrast with the green pitch and representing, Véliz remembers now, "a government that had spilled a lot of blood."

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