Kolkata: Shock and disbelief gripped the football-crazed city of Kolkata as the news of Diego Maradona’s death broke Wednesday night. Argentina’s legendary 1986 World Cup-winning captain passed away at 60 due to a heart attack, days after an emergency surgery on the brain.
Kolkata’s legion of Maradona fans first took to social media to express their grief, and then, Thursday morning, paid tribute to one of its demi-gods by garlanding his photos, taking out small candle-light processions, and organising neighbourhood football matches in Jadavpur and many north Kolkata localities.
Covid restrictions meant that there was no big outpouring of fans on the streets or any mass-mourning events, but small marches and condolence meetings were organised at the neighbourhood level, where emotions ran high.
Maradona had visited Kolkata twice, in 2008 and 2017, to the joy of millions. Argentina and Brazil have had loyal fan-followings in Kolkata for decades, and Maradona’s own other-worldly skills played no small part in making that happen.
Unlike its southern football-loving counterpart Kerala, West Bengal did not opt for state mourning. But prominent football club Mohun Bagan flew its flag at half-mast to honour the legend.
The front pages of vernacular dailies also reflected Bengal’s love for Maradona. The largest of the dailies, Anandabazar Patrika, carried a monochrome photo of Maradona in action, with the headline ‘Ishwar, Football, Bhalobasha’ (God, Football, Love). Pratidin’s headline matched the sentiment — ‘Ishwar Samipe Ishwar’ (God is now near God). Aajkaal simply wrote ‘Jadugor nei, rikto hollo football’ (Magician is no more, football is empty).
On social media, fans kept narrating their experiences of watching, and, in some cases, even meeting, Maradona. They shared his autographs; some even sketched his likeness, while others wrote tearful pieces to share how Maradona drew them to football.
Magician’s spell on Kolkata
On his first visit in 2008, Maradona came to Kolkata to attend an event organised by Mohun Bagan.
“It was 7 December 2008 when he came to our ground. We had given him 24 footballs, and he kicked in 24 directions of the ground. Seeing him, interacting with him, was almost like meeting God. I lost my God last night,” said Srinjoy Bose, general secretary of Mohun Bagan Athletic Club.
“He was a rebel, and above all conventions. Initially, we discarded his news of death as a rumour. It took time to sink in. You may not see people grieving on the streets due to Covid protocols, but emotions are pouring out everywhere,” Bose said.
The second visit, in 2017, saw a 57-year-old Maradona attend a charity match at a school ground in the suburb of Barasat, around 60 km from Kolkata. He also unveiled his statue in Bengal’s capital, and spoke and even sang in his native tongue, Spanish.
He was supposed to team up with local dignitaries against a side led by cricket legend Sourav Ganguly, but, due to time running short, he dribbled a ball and showed glimpses of the left foot that made him legendary.
Sujit Bose, a former cricketer and current fire and emergencies minister in Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress government, was one of those who was part of the Maradona XI for the match that never happened.
“We are devastated. We all know that he was a legend and almost out of our reach. But all football lovers in the city saw him as their own. He is worshipped and loved,” Sujit Bose said.
“Today, we organised a condolence meeting near the statue of him that he had unveiled in 2017. Hundreds of people gathered. Tomorrow, there is a derby match between Mohun Bagan and East Bengal. We will put a big screen at the ground where he had come (in Barasat) and telecast the match live,” the minister said.
Uttam Saha, secretary of Kolkata’s Argentina football fan club, said he and his cohorts also organised candle marches and a condolence meeting in south Kolkata to pay their tributes.