More than anything else, what many Indian fans remember is the joy he gave them. As Maradona once said, "When you're on the field, life goes away, the problems go away, everything goes away!”
One of my earliest memories of football, the game I love above all else, was seeing my father’s friend insert a tape into a video cassette recorder (VCR) and showing me the greatest goal he had ever seen. Almost 26 years ago, he showed me an Argentine genius, Diego Armando Maradona, standing barely 5 feet 5 inches, scoring that iconic solo goal versus England in the 1986 World Cup quarterfinal at the Azteca Stadium in Mexico City.
(Image above courtesy Twitter/Argentina en India)
Many remember the infamous ‘Hand of God’ goal in that match. But it was this goal that truly cemented my love for the game. It’s a goal I’ve seen time and time again—on television, on my desktop in college, on my work laptop and finally on my mobile phone a gazillion times. And you know what? It never gets old.
His solo effort against England integrated the elements of art, football and life into one move. That defines everything I love about the game of football.
For a period of time, this genius of football had it all, and everyone loved him for it. But what Maradona exhibited more than anything else was pure love for the game. Every time he played and everywhere he went, he wore his heart on his sleeve. It endeared him to so many fans across different generations and around the world. When you add to the fact that he was the very best ever to play the most popular sport in the world, what you have is an icon.
But tragically last night, his heart stopped following a heart attack at the age of 60. Fans from Imphal to Buenos Aires are still in mourning. Among those mourning the hardest are fans in India.
The same emotion which endeared Maradona to the rest of the world is what made him so deeply popular in India. Just read this excerpt of a report published by journalist Subhankar Mondal in Goal.com, when Maradona visited Kolkata in 2008 to inaugurate a private football academy, which was almost secondary to his very presence there.
At the iconic Salt Lake Stadium before an exhibition match, Mondal writes:
There was emotion when at the start of the match, Maradona ran onto the pitch and did his famous juggling. There was emotion when during half-time, some ball-boys rushed onto Maradona to touch him. Even the players who were participating in the exhibition match couldn’t resist feeling the emotions and feeling proud at being able to hug the Great Diego.
Four years later, the greatest football player of all-time returned to India, and this time he landed in the football-mad state of Kerala. He was just there to open a jewellery showroom. But nobody really cared about that except of course the showroom owners.
Standing on a makeshift stage, he cut a cake in celebration of his 52nd birthday (in advance), exchanged headers with Indian football legend IM Vijayan, kicked balls into large crowds and even danced for a bit. There was only one thing that could explain the delirium of the crowd, and that was pure unadulterated emotion.
Finally, the third and the last time he graced Indian soil was in 2017, and once again he was back in the City of Joy. He was there for a charity event, and former Indian cricket captain Saurav Ganguly was slated to play Maradona in an exhibition match.
Although the Argentine legend didn’t last long on the pitch, football-mad Bengalis caught one last sight of their favourite global citizen. Nobody cared that he was overweight and out of breath. All they cared was that they saw their legend in the flesh.
India’s began its love affair with the FIFA World Cup tournament in 1982. Then, for the first time, the semi-finals and final were telecast live on Doordarshan. For the 1986 World Cup, the entire tournament was telecast live in India on colour TV.
The 1986 World Cup belonged to Maradona. It was peak Maradona. For my father’s generation in India, particularly in the football-crazy parts of the country, it’s what established a cult following of this Argentine genius. It was their first memory of live international football. They soon passed on their love of this icon to their children.
It didn’t matter to them that his life was eventually caught up in drugs, alcohol, a series of debilitating health issues and instances of juvenile behaviour.
I suppose the fact that he did the English dirty with the ‘Hand of God’ also gave many Indians a kick. Open the British tabloids today morning, and you’ll still find a reference to his lack of ‘sportsmanship’ and ‘fairness’. You can almost hear Indians and Argentinians, who have suffered at the hand of White British colonialism, laugh in irony.
More than anything else, however, what they remember is the joy he gave them. As Maradona himself once said in filmmaker Asif Kapadia’s iconic documentary about him, “When you’re on the field, life goes away, the problems go away, everything goes away!”
(Edited by Vinayak Hegde)