It’s been a long way to Dubai for the three football fanatics sitting in front of me at the Sapphire Hotel. When they set off to track down arguably the greatest player to have graced the game, they didn’t expect their journey through America would take them all over the world.
“It’s been unbelievable,” says Paul Wood as he kicks back in his poolside seat. “Never in a million years did we imagine it’d be like this.”
When ‘Woody’ was growing up in troubled London estates the one constant in his life was his love for Diego Maradona, the Argentine legend that brought the country some of its best sporting moments.
“I’ve just worshipped him from when I was a child. Everything about him. For me he’s the greatest player to have ever walked the planet. I had this video of him when I was younger and would bring it everywhere, watching it every day until I had perfected his skills.”
It was honing these skills that gave the ex-Arsenal schoolboy the idea for what has become the recent box-office hit, In the Hands of the Gods, a fly-on-the-wall documentary that chronicles the trials and tribulations of five young hopefuls dertermined to meet their hero. The quintet had only their tricks and charisma to rely on to raise the money to fund the search.
Danny Robinson, fellow freestyler and close friend to Woody, jumps in to explain how it came about. “The two of us were at Arsenal together on a Youth Training Scheme and while we were there we’d always talk about great players. Like when you’re a child you’d say what would you do to meet Pamela Anderson... well, for us, it was always Diego.”
And from there the plan to hunt down one of football’s finest exponents was put into place. But it was only when the producers of the duo’s Freestyle Show said they’d be interested in filming the search that the dream became a reality.
“The producers said ‘if you want to make this happen we’ll try to help, but how serious are you?’,” continues Danny. “They wanted us to prove to them how much we wanted it. So we did.
“We did a trial day out in the middle of London and went to different locations in Oxford Street, Piccadilly Circus and Leicester Square. We had a few hours to raise enough money, through our football tricks, for six of us to eat out.
“The producers thought we’d be lucky to eat in Pizza Hut, but we managed to raise enough cash for all six of us to have a three-course meal in the Savoy. So they thought ‘these guys mean business’, got the funding and investment and we started filming later that year.
“And by 2007 it was done and we were all at the Cannes Film Festival. Danny pulled Jessica Simpson there. She keeps hounding him but he’s just ignoring her calls,” says the third member of the trio. Jeremy Lynch, officially Europe’s premier freestyler, has remained quiet until now. The Essex-born baller admits he still finds it all hard to take in.
“The film then got bought by Lionsgate in the United Kingdom and they just took it from a small movie to a huge project, ending in a red carpet premiere in London.”
The star treatment is far removed from the harsh times the group endured in their quest to find a footballing legend. Starting in New York, the five friends had to use their skills to busk their way through North America and down to South America where the ex-Barcelona forward now resides.
With no help from the film crew, the six-week trip became a journey of self-discovery for the boys, as the appalling conditions they experienced led to tensions that sometimes boiled over on screen.
“The filmmakers wanted nothing to do with our side of things,” explains Woody.
“It was very important for them to stay at a distance because if they didn’t you’d never get that raw emotion you got from us. We were starving at times, sleeping rough; we weren’t even allowed to clean our teeth in their hotel room when we were sleeping outside in the car in the car-park. But what that did was keep that ugliness about us, so when you were feeling something it came across so clearly on camera.
“And I suppose that’s why people loved the film, because it was so real that they could tell there was no messing around, they’re actually doing this for real and really slumming it. There’s that struggle we go through and the audience can see what we’re trying to achieve and what it’s all about.”
The struggle included trying to perform when they simply didn’t have the energy to put on a show for the hoardes of Americans who gathered to watch on the streets.
“We hardly ate at all during the day,” recalls Jeremy. “When you’re exercising all day, doing tricks, you couldn’t be lethargic or lazy because you wouldn’t get any money. We weren’t eating properly, weren’t drinking properly so it was very hard to be lively and get people involved. But you had to because you relied on your audience to survive.”
With money earned going towards their travel to Buenos Aires, the group often starved themselves to raise enough cash to get to the next destination.
“At one point Ben [Turner, co-director] was fasting and he was eating these dry crackers,” says Woody. “And, because of how desperate and hungry we were, they just looked like the tastiest things I’d ever seen.”
As food was at a premium, and Diego seemed further away than ever, the group became fragmented and was forced to split up. Woody and Sami Hall, a Somalian refugee now living in England, travelled to Rio de Janeiro to fly from there to Argentina, while Danny, Jeremy and Mikey Fisher, a brash young freestyler from Liverpool, headed to Los Angeles to busk for their air-fare to Maradona.
“That’s where we got betrayed and three became two,” says Danny. “We got done over by our so-called friend. Mikey got a job to do what we couldn’t, earned some money and decided to go it alone [by flying solo to Buenos Aires]. It hurt because throughout the trip we would split up and go places, some earned money and some didn’t but it didn’t matter because we were a whole. But Mikey got some cash and basically abandoned us.”
So, now the dust has settled and the film’s been a success, are they still friends? Danny, rather diplomatically, lets Jeremy answer.
“I get on well with him now because it’s sort of forgiven and forgotten, but I still don’t agree with what he did to us. It took some time to get over it because it was such a harsh thing to do and the way it was done as well.
“It was at a time when tensions were high, we were stressed and we were all trying really hard to accomplish something special, so we just didn’t expect a mate to do that to us,” he says.
Before Jeremy finishes, Woody leaps up from his seat and dive-bombs into the pool in front of their embarrassed PR girl. The other two burst into a fit of laughter, lifting the mood of the interview again. It’s clear the camaraderie between the boys has remained despite the taxing trip.
“We did have some great times though,” says Danny. “We went to a place called the Floating Gardens in Mexico City, where we got these fancy boats with the guys playing marimbas... it was brilliant.”
“Acapulco was a very big highlight too,” shouts Woody on his way back to join us at the table.
“It was a party city, unbelievable. Whatever club we were performing in was completely rammed and everywhere else was empty. There’s a birdseye view of us where everyone is crowded around us and there’s queues running right down the street.”
“And I think I can speak for all of us by mentioning the time in New York where we went onto the Rockefeller roof – overlooking the city’s skyline – and watched the sunset,” adds Danny. “It was so romantic, especially sharing it with four boys.”
As the interview winds down the trio are still game for a laugh, with Danny even admitting that he never really “pulled” Jessica Simpson in Cannes. So what is next on the horizon for the travelling tricksters?
“We’ll go in search of Jessica Alba now,” jokes Jeremy.
“We’ve had a few set-backs with her getting pregnant, but we’ll give it a go.” When I inform them that she’s in Paris and may be easier to find than Maradona, Danny jumps up and shouts: “He’s more hardcore than us... you can come too!”