Back in the day, there was no Indian Super League or Futsal to bring international footballers on the turf with Indians. Even one exhibition match would be like a dream.
Former India footballer Shyam Thapa had the privilege to play with Pele and three years ago, he interacted and passed the ball around for a while with Diego Maradona on the pitch. The Argentine legend passed away at 60 this week, and Thapa remembers him for the down to earth nature. “Maradona would hug everyone.”
“I had told him he was the greatest ever player. I told him that it felt like a dream to meet him. He came and hugged me. Film stars shake hands but sportsmen don’t mind hugging you. And he did that, that’s the beauty of the person that he was,” Thapa, who helped India bag bronze in the Merdeka Tournament and the Bangkok Asian Games in 1970, told Sportstar .
Three years ago in Kolkata, Thapa was part of a charity match with Maradona as captain of one side. These conversations happened before the game.
Maradona kicked off the game but stepped aside due to a niggle. Later, he shot a few balls to the crowd. “He asked me whose team was stronger, mine or his. I told him mine and pointed to Sourav Ganguly [former India cricketer who was part of the squad]. Maradona is a dream for anyone, forget playing, even to catch a glimpse,” he said.
In 1990, Thapa was one of the footballers to have travelled to Italy to catch Maradona live in action at the World Cup. “We were lucky we got a chance, thanks to the State government. It was a big thing,” said Thapa, who was the highest-paid Indian footballer of the late seventies. He had helped Mohun Bagan bag a treble - IFA Shield, Rovers Cup and Durand - in the 1977-78 season.
Maradona’s last words still ring in his ears. “I had told him how I couldn’t meet him in 2008 due to strict police protection. I remember his reply: ‘You meet this time, you meet this time!’”
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