Dubai: It was a morning after when the football world woke up to thinking it was all but a nightmare. As it mourns the death of Diego Maradona, the flawed genius of world football, Kolkata - the ‘City of Joy’ known for it’s passion for the beautiful game - wistfully looked back at the memories of his two visits there over a decade.
The second one came in December, 2017, when ‘El Diego’ spent nearly three days and had it’s football crazy people - not to speak of the local media - eating out of his hands. The photos and memories have popped up again in several Indian newspapers and websites, more so in the regional ones, making one wonder about how could then a portly 57-year-old, still play the Pied Piper of Hamlyn.
The fascination for Maradona in that part of the world began in the wake of his 1986 Mexico World Cup days. Before that, Kolkata or the whole of West Bengal and Kerala, two of the leading football states in India were sworn supporters of Brazil in general - and Pele in particular. The Brazilian icon, then retired from international football and plying his trade in North American league for New York Cosmos, visited Kolkata along with Carlos Alberto to play in an exhibition game in 1977 - a match that was played to full house at the Eden Gardens.
Argentina’s triumph at home in 1978 was still somewhat a remote feat for Indians, with lack of satellite TV channels providing little no or exposure for the fans to the charm of the ruggedly handsome Mario Kempres, the cool of captain Daniel Passarella or the silken touch of Ossie Ardilles. Kolkata was still gung ho about the Samba Boys, whose 1982 team of Zico, Socrates, Falcao & Co took the beautiful game to another level till they bowed out on penalties.
All that, however, changed with 1986 but then Maradona was more than just that World Cup. Four years later in Italy, the job was tougher for him as he was that much older and the world had a closer scrutiny of his magic. As he sobbed after the final which Argentina lost 1-0 to West Germany with a penalty strike by Andreas Brehme, we vehemently argued that it was a ‘dive’ from striker Jurgen Klinsmann which shouldn’t have fetched a spot-kick in the first place.
Maradona was single-handedly responsible in driving a wedge in Brazil’s fanshare and made it into two camps - the ‘Brazilians’ and ‘Argentines.’ As idiosyncratic as it may sound, one needed to pay a visit to the city in the Eighties and Nineties to find out how giant flags of the two countries would keep fluttering in different neighbourhoods during the World Cup month.
During his last visit to the city, Maradona had promised to bring ‘‘big time’’ football to India, shook a leg with Sourav Ganguly - former Indian cricket captain and a diehard Maradona fan - and sweated it out for a clinic with a bunch of schoolkids. And yes, he belted out a number of Spanish songs too in a hands-free microphone.
He spoke about his interest in uplifting the standard of football in India, but one probably knew it was the Maradona rhetoric at work again.
The lasting impression he left will possibly never go away...