Indian art teacher Sagar Kambli makes a painting of Diego Maradona on a pavement outside his art school in Mumbai on Thursday. AP
Football is infinitely poorer today because it is unlikely that the game will produce another character as vibrant, as larger-than-life as Maradona. The city of Kolkata, which the legend visited twice (in 2008 and 2017), will feel especially sharp pangs of pain at the passing away of a man who they embraced as their own.
In the pre-Maradona era, Brazil’s Pele was King. In Calcutta as in the rest of the world. But once the short and stout Argentine stormed the scene, the crown was quickly passed to him. In street corners and in tea stalls in Kolkata, he will forever remain a man who could do no wrong.
India is a cricket-crazy nation. Kolkata, too, loves the gentleman’s game to distraction. But every four years, when the FIFA World Cup comes around, the bustling metropolis puts everything else on hold. The city’s love affair with football predates the advent of live television, but once World Cup matches began to be beamed into homes across the subcontinent, all of India was fixated on the exploits of the game’s greats. Kolkata led the way with its unalloyed love for Argentina and Maradona.
Lionel Messi has his fans in the city, but it is unlikely that he will ever eclipse the aura of Maradona. The latter was the real deal for Calcuttans in the 1980s and beyond. What was it about Maradona that made him such a darling of the city? Bengalis are an emotional, unpredictable and demonstrative bunch of people who are given to excess. Therein lies the secret behind the bond they have with Maradona.
Maradona, famously and magically, made amends for his 1986 ‘Hand of God’ World Cup goal against England with “the goal of the century” the very next minute. Has there ever been more drama on the football field surrounding a single individual?
The love of Calcuttans for Maradona is, therefore, absolutely understandable. It was the man’s flamboyance that drew his Kolkata fans, especially those whose own lives bordered on the dreary, towards him. Wasn’t the legend exactly the way they themselves are – passionate but flawed, capable of great artistry and yet often exasperatingly self-destructive, given to infectious, life-afforming exuberance and, at the same time, prone to shocking and debilitating overreach.
Maradona was a blemished genius and that is what brought him so close to the hearts of Calcuttans.Of course, Maradona’s Indian fan following wasn’t limited to Kolkata and Bengal. But here, it often crossed the limits of madness. When the footballer landed in Kolkata in 2008, he was taken completely by surprise. Over 50,000 admirers turned up at the airport to receive him. The Salt Lake Stadium, the venue of an exhibition match and a felicitation ceremony in honour of the visitor, was packed to the rafters. The delirious fans had their attention on their icon even as the latter kept his eyes on the on-field action.
He did return to Kolkata nine years later for another exhibition match that also saw the participation of the former India cricket captain Sourav Ganguly. The cricketer also spent time with the football great as the latter conducted a workshop for young enthusiasts in a school on the outskirts of the city. For Ganguly, by his own admission, these were fanboy moments.
On hearing of Maradona’s death, the current president of the Board of Control for Cricket in India tweeted: “My hero no more… my mad genius rest in peace. I watched football for you.”
Many in Kolkata did likewise. They took to supporting the game because Maradona was football’s biggest ambassador in the 1980s and a part of the 1990s before he got sucked into unseemly things. But for his fans in this part of the world, he was beyond reproach.
Such was the enthusiasm that he generated that people across India would stay up to the wee hours of the morning to catch him in action in the World Cup. India has never figured in the World Cup but that did not deter them.
Maradona, a hero for all underdogs who have had a rough deal in in life and are desperate to lift themselves out of the morass, was their man in the middle and they were willing to go to any lengths in order to savour – and celebrate – the magic of peerless mastery over the ball.
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