Football God in God’s Own Country

A Spanish tune gets Diego Maradona going in Kannur.-PICS: H. VIBHU

In just a little over 20 minutes Diego Maradona showered his fans in Kannur with rare warmth and geniality. It was a class act all the way and the crowd could not have asked for more, writes A. Vinod.

Even as the first feelers of a visit by soccer God Diego Maradona came to do the rounds, Kerala and its football-crazy fans went agog with excitement. And when finally the dates of the two-day visit by the Argentine superstar to the State were confirmed, the frenzy only rose by the minute.

It was the second visit of Maradona to the country, the legend having made a short trip to Kolkata in December 2008. But to be provided with the opportunity of having a glimpse of the football ace in flesh and blood was something which no Keralite had even dreamt of.

It did not matter that Maradona reached God’s Own Country at an unearthly hour on the morning of October 23. Landing from Dubai at the Nedumbassery International airport in the outskirts of Kochi, Maradona himself was really surprised by the sheer numbers, including scores of women, who were waiting outside the terminal to greet him. He was whisked away to a nearby helipad from where he left for Kannur. There he was to inaugurate the new showroom of a private jeweller.

At the Military helipad in Kannur, the scene was no different and it took some time for the heavy security detail to help Maradona to his car. He was then driven to a town hotel for a well-deserved rest till 11 a.m.

The local media too had gone crazy running stories that Maradona would be wearing a dhoti the next day and that besides continental food, the chefs at his hotel had included such South Indian delicacies like Idlis and Dosas in the menu prepared for their priceless guest.

A little after noon, Maradona joined the unit of noted Malayalam film director, Sibi Malayil, for a commercial shoot for his host straight from the suite which had been named after himself. Meanwhile, scores of his fans stood outside the hotel chanting his name and waving the Argentine flag. Maradona, after a hearty meal of fish, finally emerged on the balcony at around 9 p.m. to wave to the growing crowd.

Meanwhile, anticipating huge crowds for his public function, the organisers had gone on an overdrive, booking the 50,000-seater Municipal Jawahar stadium and erecting a special ramp inside the ground besides railings on the four corners. Over 2000 policemen and hundreds of personnel from private agencies were roped in to oversee security.

On October 24, the crowd which had been waiting patiently right from the wee hours were finally allowed to gain vantage positions inside the stadium a little after 7 a.m. It was expected that the hero would arrive at 10 a.m., and the nearly packed stadium was regaled by a host of singers and dancers.

Finally, at 11.17 a.m., a red chopper came zooming over the stadium before landing outside the ground, near the galleries on the eastern side. Maradona indeed gave his security personnel a good run for their money, dashing over to the landing of the pavilion and waving and bowing to his fans.

Maradona belts out a number, one which scored No.10 on the popularity charts in Kannur.-

Maradona, clad in a pale ash coloured shirt, blue jeans and black sneakers and sporting his trademark salt-and-pepper French beard besides wearing a glittering gold stud on his right ear, was in high spirits as he swiftly moved into the tunnel leading to the specially erected ramp inside the ground. And what followed through the next 20 minutes was simply breathtaking.

Moving over to the four corners of the ramp, Maradona had the crowd eating out of his hands as he struck a chord with them straightaway, waving, bowing and blowing kisses to them. And when a ball was rolled out to him, the football great, a four-time World Cupper and captain of the winning 1986 Argentinean team, indulged in his famed jugglery skills which naturally sent the crowd into absolute delirium.

It was magical as Maradona kicked the ball straight into the crowd and when asked for more, showcased his skills again and again without hesitation before shooting the ball towards the galleries.

The crowd’s joy escalated when the maestro involved himself with a heading duel with former Indian skipper I. M. Vijayan. Maradona then walked straight to the Kerala player and hugged him. Vijayan was left speechless before remarking, “I had grown up idolising him and it is indeed a great moment to cherish of playing at least a few minutes with the greatest footballer of all time. It is one of my most memorable days and I will treasure it through the rest of my life.”

The show was not over yet, as Maradona had further surprises for the crowd. Hearing a local artiste singing a Spanish song in his honour while strumming a guitar, Maradona got hold of the microphone and started to sing a Spanish song himself, hitting the notes in much the same perfect fashion as he used to cut down rival defences during his illustrious career.

With the crowd encouraging him to go on with rapturous applause, Maradona slowly waltzed, moving his feet as a seasoned dancer would do. “Viva India”, he cried out repeatedly at the end of the song, touching his heart with his pumped up right hand, seemingly to indicate how much he appreciated the love bestowed on him by his fans.

Maradona, the showman, was at his brilliant best and as the crowd stood soaking in every moment, he moved over to cut a specially crafted cake — weighing 30 kg and in the shape of a football field with a soccer crust in the middle — as an advance celebration of his 52nd birthday (falling on October 30).

Maradona was flanked by the Kerala Home Minister, Thiruvanchoor Radhakrishnan and the Sports Minister, K. B. Ganesh Kumar, and as he cut the cake and enjoyed a piece of the sweet offering, it was the turn of the crowd to sing, “Happy Birthday, dear Maradona.”

Visibly moved by the thunderous reception, Maradona went to the four corners of the ramp once again, signalling his appreciation to the crowd. And then he surprised everyone, as he screamed, “I love Kerala.”

Turning around, Maradona slowly moved back to the tunnel leading to the main entrance waving all the way and disappeared. In just a little over 20 minutes Maradona had showered his fans with rare warmth and geniality. It was a class act all the way and the crowd could not have asked for more.