In 2000 I was one of the main cameramen on the documentary series "The History of Football" that took me around the world filming interviews with many greats of football, both past and present: Pele, Zico, Socrates, Bobby Charlton, Paolo Rossi and the list goes on.
Of all the interviews though, it was Maradona’s which proved to be the most difficult to pull off and the most exciting to film.
At the time he was trying to kick his coke habit in a rehab sanctuary in Havana, Cuba.
He had been hounded by the press after having fired a gun at journalists through his garden gate so the last thing on his mind was to give an interview, let alone to "British" TV.
The Executive Producer of the series, Guy Oliver, through past contacts, had managed to get hold of Maradona's agent, Guillermo Coppola. They wanted to be paid though and a fee of around £30,000 was agreed and wired to a Swiss bank account.
We had all heard of a story where the BBC had paid Maradona a similar amount for an interview a couple of years earlier, the crew arrived in Buenos Aires only to find Maradona had skipped town thousands of pounds the richer and the Beeb were left with egg on their faces.
Not sure how true it was, it was more than likely to have been a bit of a chinese whisper which had been greatly exaggerated.
The stumbling block was importing the camera from Britain to Cuba. It was complicated, it meant a lot of paper work and we didn't have time to wait. There was and I think there still is a treaty between Argentina and Cuba so it was arranged that a cameraman from Argentina fly to Havana with a camera kit but as I knew the style of the programme and spoke fluent Italian I would go out and film it together with a Anglo-Spanish producer, Luis, and hope that Maradona, whom we had been told had an aversion against British press, would be charmed by our latino mix.
As soon as we landed in Havana we called Maradona's agent, Guillermo. There was no answer. We panicked. We re-dialed his number every hour or so and eventually the next day he answered. He told us he was waiting for the money to clear and he would call to let us know when and where we would meet.
Talk about nerves! The BBC rip-off story flashed through our minds. “He’s going to do the same to us”, we thought.
There was nothing to do but wait, kind of. We did the usual touristy stuff around Havana, marveled at the architecture, the beautiful 50's cars and trucks and the complete lack of advertising, no corporate branding flooding your senses which was so refreshing. I suppose that’s the one good thing to come out of a communist/ socialist state. Once we set one foot outside the hotel though, we were pestered by touts, drug dealers, pimps offering anything to suit our tastes. Capitalism at its best! The locals were hungry and they had nothing. Shops had one price for locals and another for tourists. Considering the Cubans couldn't afford anything it really made no difference. They each receive a daily food allowance from the government of eggs, flour, bread, sugar, salt and milk, It was like being back in another time, another place during the cold war.
After a couple of days of waiting we got bored. A barman told us that Maradona had been sighted in a hotel gym downtown, so we jumped in our tiny little hire car and drove through the bumpy streets as fast as we could. Not sure what we were planning to do or say to him if he was there though.
After an extensive search around the back streets of Havana we found the sad and dilapidated looking hotel. There was no sign of Maradona and none of the hotel staff had seen him. A false alarm.
Despite the hustle and bustle of the city, in the evenings the restaurants were empty. We always seemed to be the only customers. One evening we were told to visit a secluded little eatery in the outskirts of town, which apparently served the very best in local cuisine. We were served an absolutely scrumptious dinner. During coffee a scruffy ugly-looking man with a limp walked in with two really stunning Cuban girls dressed up to the hilt in the latest fashion from Milan and Paris.
The waiters ran around, fussing over them, bending to their every will. It didn't make sense. They had a quick dessert, a coffee and then got up and left. As they walked past our table the scruffy ugly man, with a woman on each arm, turned and gave us the filthiest sneer and walked out. The waiter came over to our table, "Who was that?" we asked "That" he said with sweat on his brow, was Fidel Castro's son".
Nerves were on edge, we’d been hanging around for five days and we were bound for London the next day and we had nothing in the can. Eventually mid morning the all important phone call came like manna from heaven. The money had cleared and Guillermo was going to meet us at the hotel around lunchtime.
Guillermo Coppola was in his fifties, tanned with a thatch of long grey trendy hair, he resembled one of those 50+ models that wouldn't go amiss in an Armani commercial. Extremely charming with an even more charming fake smile. He told us to jump in our car and follow him. He bombed it through the streets of Havana, down to the coast along the riviera at 70 miles an hour, through red lights and without a care in the world and it seemed without a care for us either, as we tried to keep up with him in our pathetic tiny chinese hire car, overflowing with camera equipment and weighted down by three burly men.
On the outskirts of the city in a quiet, affluent suburb of Miramar and just past Fidel Castro's villa, sat the renowned Cira Garcia rehab clinic.
It was a very basic looking building with two british ambulances parked outside the main reception, still with their UK number plates. In the large and dilapidated gardens there was a row of around twenty small unkempt villas, one of which was where Maradona had been hiding for the past few months.
We waited in the kitchen of Maradona's villa while Guillermo faffed around. Lunch was prepared and served for us by the staff. We were joking and chatting when Guillermo suddenly left the kitchen only to return and tell us that Maradona wasn't in the mood to do the interview, he was tired and would we mind postponing it until later that evening. In the meantime he showed us a room in an adjacent villa where we could set up the camera and lights to save time later on when we came back.
We were disappointed and thought it was a poor excuse by Maradona, we felt he was playing with us.
I had filmed enough footballers over the years to know they got their kicks out of taking journalists for a ride. Guillermo apologized with a smarmy grin.
We stopped by small store, bought some beer and crisps. We sat quietly in our hotel room watching dreadful Cuban TV wondering if this interview was ever going to happen, preparing ourselves for the worst and possibly canceling the return flight to London the next day and staying a few more days until we got what we came for.
At 10pm the phone rang: "Quick, come now!" shouted Guillermo.
The roads were pitch black. All the street lights were turned off. We got lost.
We arrived an hour late, Guillermo shepherded us into the living room. "Wait here" he said.
The room was anything but luxurious. It was simple with cane garden style chairs and sofa, a few photos scattered on the cheap furniture, Maradona with his son, Maradona and Guillermo with scantily clad girls, Maradona with a notable Argentinean player whom he was famously in cahoots with during his coke snorting days.
A giant TV in the corner of the room was showing a Boca Juniors football game.
Meanwhile music was coming from the bathroom upstairs and someone was crooning to it. It was Maradona. When the ballad came to an end we could hear him rewind the tape and play it again.
The more he played it, the louder his singing got. It was difficult not to laugh at the absurdity of it all.
Guillermo told us that Maradona was having a long hot bath and would be with us as soon as he was ready, which could even mean by early sunrise. Apparently he had become a night owl.
Half an hour later, Maradona burst into the room like a Tasmanian devil. His energy was incredible.
He’d certainly put on weight since we last saw him play at USA 94, when he was subsequently banned having tested positive for drugs. He was extremely overweight and swollen, breathing heavily, he had a thin black band tied around his head and despite the bath he was sweating. He spoke non-stop, asking us all questions, but never really listening to any of our replies. He commented on the game on TV while he talked about football, about Argentina, about women, all in the one breath. There are few people in the world who have such an indescribable charisma. The room was charged with his presence. After a few minutes its like we were all best mates.
It was now nearly one am. We decided to make our way to the villa next door where we’d set up the camera and lights and get straight on with the interview. Outside was pitch black.
We didn’t have a torch; there weren't any lights from any other buildings or street lamps and none of us could see where we were going. I was talking to Maradona while he held my arm, when all of a sudden there was this thump and he screamed out and swore. He had walked into a tree! We all had to fumble around in the dark to make sure he was ok. He saw the funny side of it and laughed it off, thank God.
It was a fantastic interview, lasting over three hours, although towards the end he started breaking out in serious sweats. Every ten minutes or so he would excuse himself and disappear into another room only to return a few minutes later looking decidedly perkier and continuously sniffing. Obviously hadn't kicked the habit.
Despite the whole ‘Hand of God’ thing he was thoroughly amusing and polite, posed for photos and signed all eleven Argentina football jerseys that I had brought with me. We drove back to the hotel in the early hours of the morning buzzing.
It's amazing what £30,000 will buy you!