Kolkata, December 2017.
He had just about settled down in his chair for the interview when I decided to spice things up a little. ‘Cristiano Ronaldo claims he is the greatest. How do you react to it?’, I asked Diego Maradona.
As his interpreter translated the question for him, I thought he betrayed a degree of unease. I was wrong. All of a sudden he burst out into a fit of laughter. Which continued for 15-20 seconds.
“Cristiano is a very good player,” Maradona started. “But greatest,” he indicated himself with a certainty that made him what he was. A temperamental genius and perhaps the most charismatic footballer ever.
I tried one more time: “If Messi does lead Argentina to a World Cup win do you think he can claim to have equalled you?” This time round the answer was immediate. “Leo can never be Maradona.”
He had put on a lot of weight in the second half of his life. But the skill that enthralled millions had never deserted him. With 10,000 people cheering for Maradona, it was fitting we ask him to sign a few balls and kick them into the crowd.
Maradona was keen to oblige. But just as I handed him the marker to sign the ball, something changed.
Even as he signed the ball his gaze was somewhere else. And before I realised he had back heeled the ball into the crowd. In a minute three balls had been sent to three different corners of the field, sending thousands into rapture.
If the entire English team was unable to stop this man in 1986, who was I to feel stunned, I thought to myself. And Diego enjoyed every bit of the action. He knew he had scored; he laughed and gave me a pat as if to say try another time.
The best, however, was reserved for the moment he was asked to sign a life size cutout of his. Before I could hand him the marker, he had run to the cutout and started speaking to the photograph.
This monologue continued for a good 3-4 minutes and ended when he carried the cutout with him to the interview set and placed it in a strategic position where it was visible to him. “He is saying are you the same person my dear,” said his interpreter. “He is saying this man [referring to the photograph] has scored some fantastic goals and is the best football player in the world. And sensing this cutout is from the 1986 match against England, he says this is the best he has ever played and this goal is the best ever in the history of world football.”
Vanity? May be. Deserved? No one could disagree.
Sourav Ganguly, one of India’s biggest sporting icons, was more of a fanboy when he met Maradona. “I am biased, you know,” Sourav said. “I grew up watching him and my love for football was largely because of Maradona. His performances in the 1986 World Cup in Mexico will forever remain with me.”
So what is it about Maradona that makes him such a legend, I asked Sourav. “Pele had the team of the century in the 1960s. Vava, Didi, Garrincha were all legends in their own right. But look at Maradona. Take him out and none of the others in the team were real legends of the game. He carried the team on his shoulders and to win a FIFA World Cup on his own makes him what he is,” said Sourav.
When I repeated this to Maradona, he was all smiles. “He is very kind,” he said pointing at Sourav before scoring one more of his trademark ones. “I had to win the World Cup. They had all gone after me in 1982 and I was much too young. 1986 had to be my year. Beating England, Belgium and Germany – it could not have been better. It meant the world to us in Argentina and showed that facilities don’t produce champions,” remembered Diego.
And as we parted, Maradona dribbled past us one final time. “He is asking you have met Pele and now you have met Diego. So who do you think is better, Diego or Pele?” the translator asked me.
Diego, I could see, had a wicked smile on his face. He was a footballer and referee clubbed in one. I had no option of preferring Pele and he loved the awkwardness.
“Tell your football federation I want to be involved in developing your football. There is so much passion here. I followed the U-17 World Cup. India can do really well in football if you put a proper structure in place,” concluded Diego. Could we afford him? Surely not.
As he settles down in heaven, the one wish of every football fan would be that gatekeepers of the afterlife welcome Diego with a football. That’s the only way he will be at peace with himself, for that’s the only thing he enjoyed in his 60 years in this world.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.