Famously leftist, Diego Maradona abhorred the United States but with its rousing reception and hospitality, Kolkata once made the Argentine icon “feel like the president” of that very country which he hated “with all my strength”.
One can call it the paradox of Maradona’s personality.
The football hotbed of India had the opportunity to witness the Argentine legend twice — in 2008 and 2017 — but the euphoria generated during his first visit remains unparalleled.
It was well past midnight but still his fans braved a cold December morning and lined up the streets from the airport to the five-star hotel near Science City to welcome their 1986 World Cup hero.
“He was so thrilled to see the reception that midway, he stopped his car and climbed up and said ‘I feel like the President of USA here’,” Bhaswar Goswami, who coordinated Maradona’s first visit, told PTI.
Those three days, the city bathed in the white and light blue Argentine colours.
“It was an unreal moment. To see the greatest footballer crying inconsolably like a child at the Mother House, we first felt something went wrong. But the sisters told us ‘he’s fine’,” Goswami remembered.
“He felt himself at home and asked the sisters ‘how can he contribute’, he later inquired about their needs and asked us to donate some shawls, winter clothes for the orphans and adjust the amount with the trip’s costs.
“He wanted it to happen within his stay. So we arranged everything and ensured that he donated the clothes himself.”
The organisers, including former CPI (M) MP Samik Lahiri and Goswami, struggled hard for an appointment in Argentina and it was his ex-wife Claudia who had come to their rescue.
Lahiri remembered how a planned 15-minute appointment in October lasted more than an hour and how he readily agreed to see “the billion football fans of India”.
“Maradona had parted ways with Claudia but had high regards for her and only because of her we could get a 15-minute appointment,” the former MP, who went to Buenos Aires with Goswami, said.
“We were all nervous in awe of the greatest footballer on earth but he hugged us after knowing that we had come from a football-mad place. Then it felt like we were talking to a guy next door. The meeting lasted more than an hour,” Lahiri recalled.
Goswami fondly remembers Maradona’s frequent mood swings — “one moment he would embrace you while on another he would be very difficult”.
The final day of Maradona’s trip in 2008 had an auction of his memorabilia and the last item on the table was a football.
Overwhelmed by the response, Maradona stopped the auction and removed his blazer, took off his tie and wrapped it around the football.
“Here’s for you. Now start bidding,” he said.
His last visit happened three years ago and that witnessed the coming together of one of his greatest fans, Sourav Ganguly, and the football legend on the sidelines of an exhibition match in Barasat.
Maradona’s second trip was centred around ‘Dada versus Diego’ match on December 12 but as it turned out, he became so excited seeing the young kids that he played his heart out, crooned Spanish songs and was on the ground for about 90 minutes.
By the time it was kick-off time, he was drenched in sweat so he just did the formalities and spoke to Ganguly for close to 15 minutes, remembered event organiser Satadru Dutta.
“It was a dream moment for me to bring my two idols together,” Dutta said.
“I introduced Dada as the ‘Prince of Kolkata’ and he obliged. To my surprise he knew about cricket and the duo spoke for about 15 minutes amid the fan frenzy.”
Local politician Sujit Basu was also involved in bringing Maradona for one last time to the city and he made it memorable by making him unveil his 12-feet statue near Sreebhumi.
“He was thrilled to see his statue of him holding aloft the 1986 World Cup. He kept looking at it for some time,” Basu said.
On Thursday, Basu organised a condolence meeting near his statue, while an Argentina Fan Club in the city organised a candle march in memory of their departed hero.
Before he left, Maradona had told the crowd: “I am not God of football but a simple footballer. I’m happy to be here in Kolkata again.