Football legend Diego Maradona enthralled a nearly packed Municipal Jawahar Stadium here on Wednesday, proving to be a showman of priceless value almost in the same vein as he ruled the hearts of fans across the world with his dribbling skills throughout a 17-year professional career between 1976 and 1997. This was his second visit to the country after a brief December sojourn at Kolkata in 2008.
The crowds could not have asked for more as the much adored Argentine star juggled the ball around, sang, danced, waved, bowed and threw flying kisses during his 24-minute presence at the stadium. It was indeed a moment to cherish for those who had taken great pains to catch a glimpse of their heartthrob and superstar.
And, Maradona did not let them down as his camaraderie found its way into the hearts of his followers.
The noise was deafening as the crowd enjoyed every minute of it. The stadium gates opened as early as 7 a.m., ending a long vigil outside for some who arrived almost a good six hours earlier, and allowing thousands to grab vantage positions.
In town for the opening of a new branch of a private jewellery firm, Maradona was almost an hour and 17 minutes late in making his appearance.
The scheduled time of 10 a.m. had come and gone, but the crowd remained patient, regaled as they were by a host of singers and dancers right from 8 a.m. The wait was finally over at 11.17 a.m. — a helicopter carrying the superstar zoomed into the stadium from nowhere and landed close to the eastern galleries.
Clad in blue jeans, pale ash blue shirt and black sneakers, Maradona doubled up the steps at the main entrance and made his way to the specially erected ramp with folded arms. The crowd rose to greet their hero, even as he stood there waving for a minute or two. The four-time World Cupper and winning captain of the 1986 Argentine squad sent the crowd into total delirium as he moved to the four corners of the ramp, waving, bowing and throwing kisses.
A football was rolled down to him, and the soccer god displayed his juggling skills before kicking it into the crowd. There was also a heady duel with the ball between the master and former India skipper I.M. Vijayan, following which Maradona walked straight to Vijayan and hugged him.
It was a great moment not only for Vijayan, but for the entire crowd that was present. Thereafter, to show his appreciation for the friendly welcome, Maradona surprised everybody by breaking into a Spanish song and hitting notes with the same ease with which he broke down rival defences through his brilliant career.
“Viva India”, Maradona cried out repeatedly, as he danced and touched his heart with a pumped up right fist as if to indicate to the crowd how India and Indians were close to his heart. Maradona, the showman, was at his brilliant best as the crowd captured every moment, rubbing their eyes in utter disbelief.
Maradona then cut a specially crafted cake — in the shape of a football field and a soccer ball thrust into the middle — in an advance celebration of his 52nd birthday (on October 30). Now, it was the turn of the crowd to sing back to him, “Happy birthday, dear Maradona.”
Kerala Home Minister Thiruvanchoor Radhakrishnan and Sports Minister K.B. Ganesh Kumar flanked Maradona as he gently cut the cake and enjoyed a piece of the sweet offering. Visibly moved by the thunderous reception, Maradona moved to the four corners of the ramp, signalled his appreciation to the crowd again and completely surprised everyone as he screamed, “I love Kerala!”
The pocket dynamo moved back into the tunnel leading to the main entrance, waving all the way and then disappeared. Maradona — to use a cliché — came, saw and conquered, displaying rare warmth and geniality.
And undoubtedly, his power-packed show was the moment of their lives for the legion of fans, who had braved the sun for well over four hours.