KOLKATA, 6 December: "God of football" Diego Armando Maradona arrived on a two-day visit to Kolkata early Saturday and was welcomed by thousands of Kolkatans who gave sleep a miss and lined the roads for a glimpse of the Argentinian.
People waved flags of India and Argentina, danced to the tune of foot-tapping Latin American music and raised slogans eulogising the football legend who touched down at the Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose International airport at 1.25 am. Kolkata, cricket crazy India's soccer crazy hub, saw passions run high as more than 50 thousand sports buffs assembled at the airport, and various street junctions leading to the hotel on the Eastern Metropolitan bypass where Maradona would put up. It was a carnival atmosphere as the milling crowd held aloft cut-outs of the footballer, and carried posters welcoming him in multiple languages - English, Hindi, Bengali and even Spanish. From old infirm men to children not yet in their teens, from able-bodied youth to bashful housewives - everyone seemed to have hit the streets. "I have been waiting for more than an hour. I am a great fan of Maradona," said housewife Ratna Sen, who had travelled 25 km to be a part of the occasion. The diminutive 1.65m hero of Argentina's 1986 World Cup triumph was welcomed at the tarmac of the airport by West Bengal sports minister Subhas Chakraborty and the organisers with flowers. "Maradona is a phenomenon. This is a momentous occasion. It's the raw passion for soccer which has brought so many people on the roads," said former India international footballer and Arjuna awardee Prasun Banerjee, waiting on a city street.
More than 5000 policemen, including the Rapid Action Force and crack commandos were deployed on the entire route of Maradona's convoy to prevent any breach of peace. A couple of over-enthusiastic teenagers were seen climbing lamp posts near the airports to hoist Argentine flags, forcing the security personnel to step in and bring them down. On Saturday morning, Maradona would begin his schedule by flying out in a helicopter to the facility of one of the sponsors before laying the foundation stone of the Maradona Indian Football School at Mahestala, 13 km south of the city.
Maradona, accompanied by his girlfriend Veronica, would also be felicitated at Maheshtala before returning to his hotel for a media meet that would be followed by the felicitation at the giant Salt Lake Stadium in the afternoon. "It will be a programme worth remembering for years. Don't miss the start and the end," said Chakraborty.
Maradona would kick-start a match between Foreign Minister's XI and Chief Minister's XI, where players turning out for various teams would take part. Among those seen in action would Bhaichung Bhutia and Jose Barreto. Later, External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee would inaugurate the felicitation proper. Maradona would be showered with gifts, among which are golden replica of the stadium, and a left foot with a football. He would also go around the stadium in the bus, before the function concludes with a pyrotechnic display.
On Sunday, Maradona would visit Mother House, the headquarters of the Missionaries of Charity founded by Mother Teresa. He would also call on former state chief minister and communist patriarch Jyoti Basu at his Salt Lake residence. Maradona would conduct a soccer clinic at the Mohun Bagan ground later in the day, before wrapping up his visit with a charity dinner at the hotel. Five jerseys and footballs autographed by the soccer star would come under the hammer at the dinner, the proceeds of which would go to the IFS.