City of Joy leaves Maradona in awe (Second lead)

December 6th, 2008 - 9:43 pm ICT by IANS  

Manmohan SinghKolkata, Dec 6 (IANS) Football legend Diego Maradona Saturday mesmerized tens of thousands of Kolkatans who poured out to see him and fete him all through the day.The soccer-mad city overwhelmed the Argentine, who said: “India is far off from my country. But I had no idea I have so many fans hereā€¦ that people love football so much. Long live India. Long live Kolkata,” said Maradona, famous for his ‘Hand of the God’ goal against England in the 1986 World Cup.

Some 50,000 wildly cheering soccer buffs were present at the airport to catch a glimpse of Maradona, who touched down in the City of Joy past midnight on his maiden visit here.

In the evening, 80,000 packed the Salt Lake stadium, which is among the world’s largest, to see the icon, who rivetted the crowd with his ball skills.

At all his programmes, the crowd lustily cheered every step of the Argentina coach, who was accompanied by girlfriend Veronica.

“I would like to thank people who brought me here. I would like to return here with my family, who have enjoyed a lot. I feel very emotional,” said Maradona, moved by the large turnout.

His visit came 31 years after the city hosted football king Pele, who turned out at the Eden Gardens for the Cosmos Cup against Mohun Bagan.

Maradona seemed to soak in the spirit of the carnival-like atmosphere that overshadowed Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit.

The ‘God of Football’ was felicitated by the state government and the organisers Celebrity Mangement Group (CMB) at the stadium during a charity match. Olympians Chuni Goswami, P.K. Banerjee, India captain Bhaichung Bhutia and several state ministers were present at the occasion.

Maradona was showered with gifts ranging from a golden replica of the stadium, golden boot and golden ball, a diamond studded trophy and also traditional Bengali sweets.

“Everybody is watching me. I am enjoying it.. It seems India is my home. I will never forget this experience,” Maradona said at the fag end of the felicitation function as hundreds of people gave him a standing ovation.

Arriving at the ground in a silver-coloured Mercedes, Maradona waved at the crowd, and even climbed the bonet of the vehicle to acknowledge the deafening applause.

He was introduced to the players of two sides - the External Affairs XI and Chief Minister’s XI - who played an exhibition match that the soccer hero watched in rapt attention and was seen rising from his seat several times in excitement.

In between, Maradona did some ball juggling, and also unveiled his wax statue brought from Asansol by artist Sushanta Roy.

Earlier in the day, thousands of fans thronged Maheshtala, in the southern fringes of the city, to watch him lay the foundation stone of the Indian Football School.

Maradona clapped, threw flying kisses and waved at the crowd, who waited anxiously for 40 minutes as the soccer great was late in leaving the hotel for the venue.

He was flown in from the hotel in a chopper to a helipad a few kilometeres from the venue at Batanagar and then was carried in a specially designed bus with large fibre-glass windows, to enable people to gave a glimpse of their “god” and for Maradona to see this packed and pulsating city.

Maradona spent 30 minutes at the complex, which houses the academy. The complex is also named after Maradona.

Maradona, swathed in admiration, unveiled the foundation stone with a press of a button and then touched it.

Maradona was showered with gifts — small silver replica of the Taj Mahal, a sketch of his idol Che Guevara were among the presents handed over to him. Teenage artist Rajasrhee Chatterjee presented him Che’s portrait.

“I come from a country which is close to Fidel Castro and Che Guevara,” He also gave an imprint of his famous left foot, which will be preserved.

Maradona’s presence left the crowd in awe.

“This was a lifetime opportunity for me to see Maradona. He is the world’s best footballer,” Shankar Maitro, a local, said.

A septuagenarian who came with his grandson to have a glimpse of the footballer, said: “I used to play football but left it long back in 1960, the year this little genius was born. I wanted to see him once in my life. I am happy that my wish is fulfilled today,” he said.

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