The maestro was overwhelmed by the love showed by the fans
KOLKATA: A sleepy township, Maheshtala, hogged the limelight holding on to the football legend, Diego Armando Maradona. It pipped Kolkata for a place on the international map bringing home the most popular idol of world football.
The soccer legend laid the foundation stone for the proposed Indian Football School. Maradona also lent his touch on the plaque that he unveiled signalling the beginning of the football academy.
The morning programme was short but sweet with the football wizard responding to the welcome note in Spanish — Beinvenido dios del futbol (welcome to the prince of football) which were planted along the way that brought the hero home. This appeared to strike the emotive chords of the temperamental star, who immediately responded to the surging crowd, stroking his heart and clasping his hands a definite sign of showing solidarity.
The estimated 15,000 people who had packed into the makeshift enclosures around the proposed site of the academy for a glimpse of Maradona were treated generously by their valued guest.
“I have never imagined that football is followed so passionately here and I have so many fans,” he said in Spanish, which was later translated.
He made the most part of the journey from the city on a helicopter and was brought on a specially designed bus from the helipad constructed near the venue.
The highlight of the function was when he was presented with a portrait of Che Guevara drawn by a local schoolboy.
Maradona was so moved by seeing the picture that he hugged the little artist and kissed him on his forehead. “I come from a country which worships Che and Fidel (Castro). I am overwhelmed to see my heroes are equally honoured here,” he said, while adding in the same breath, “viva India, viva Kalkuta (long live India, long live Kolkata).”
The evening was equally thrilling with Maradona retaining his verve while arriving to attend a grand felicitation planned by the State government at the Salt Lake Stadium, bristling with an attendance of around 80,000.
“I will forever cherish the reception I have received ever since landing here. I feel like being at home in India,” he said after he was showered with gifts ranging from a golden boot, a golden ball, a golden replica of the Salt Lake Stadium and a set of 100 roses, each of which wished him a year in life.
Maradona made an unscheduled run to the centre of the pitch. The electrifying atmosphere had worked its charm invoking the footballer out of the coach. For the the players on the pitch, who were selected from the local I-League clubs for a friendly, it was a pleasant surprise when the chief guest jumped out of his seat and ran on to the pitch.
Baichung Bhutia, Ishfaq Ahmed, Subroto Paul, Dipak Mondal and others getting into position ahead of the kick-off were startled by the unheralded pitch invasion.
The stadium was set on a flashback mode seeing player Maradona making a short jig in the middle juggling the ball and sending it high in the air just to remind that the magic of his left foot is still alive.
“Please forgive me for not being able to talk to each one of you,” Maradona said
On the concluding day of his trip on Sunday, Maradona is scheduled to visit the headquarters of the Missionaries of Charity Mother House and attend a football clinic at Mohun Bagan ground.
On Friday, Maradona arrived to a rousing welcome by thousands of frenzied fans who remained awake till past mid night waving Argentina’s national flag of white and sky blue for first glimpse of the legend at the city airport here.
Sporting a black jacket and a perfectly matching trouser, Maradona boarded a five-seated bus with giant-sized fibre-glass windows as he waved at the fans and proceeded to the hotel. The crowd chanted ‘Diego, Diego’ as the convoy rolled on.
He was accompanied by his girlfriend Veronica, who was seated next to him with her left hand plastered.
The 5,000-strong security men had a harrowing time to control the surging crowd which started pouring since 9 pm and almost run over the barricade as the football prince arrived, over three decades after the visit of soccer great Pele.