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My encounter with Diego, the divine

26 November, 2020 12:13:02
My encounter with Diego, the divine

He was practising right in front of our eyes. Live, in flesh and blood. Sitting in the Argentina camp, we watched awestruck, as he dribbled, juggled, and dead-balled. Later that night, the whole of India would see what we were seeing, but on TV. Whereas those of us in charge of the shooting were watching in disbelief as the God of Football casually walked around a few feet from us.

This incredible stroke of fortune had come our way thanks to FIFA and its relatively lax accreditation policy back then. My company, Open Air Communications, had probably become the first Indian agency to sign an agreement with FIFA at Zurich for the exclusive telecast of Italia ’90 and all major FIFA Tournaments worldwide. We were to record footage and send it back to Doordarshan in India, and by footage, I mean not just matches, but training sessions, informal chats with players, and access to team dressing rooms --- the kind of access most journalists would die for. Today, that kind of access has become prohibitively expensive for most Indian broadcasters, and FIFA’s rules regarding who may be granted such access much tighter. 

This incredible stroke of fortune had come our way thanks to FIFA and its relatively lax accreditation policy back then. My company, Open Air Communications, had probably become the first Indian agency to sign an agreement with FIFA at Zurich for the exclusive telecast of Italia ’90 and all major FIFA Tournaments worldwide.

Trigonia, Argentina Training Centre

Nearly three decades ago in Italy, however, we were on a dream run. At 9.00 in the morning, we left the hotel for the media centre, Abhijit hoisting the nearly 6.5 kg video recorder onto his shoulder, me lugging the nearly 3 kg low-band camera, Shubhasis bringing up the rear with his sound boom, and the rest of the crew carrying other bits and pieces. Our excitement at the prospect of covering Diego Maradona’s training session was almost painful as we boarded a bus to take us to the little town of Trigonia, about 25 km away from Rome. 

Approximately 30 minutes later, we arrived. Possibly owing to Maradona, security at the camp was ironclad, though our ‘all access’ passes allowed us to go anywhere. Trying hard to look as though this wasn’t the first time that we were entering a national training camp, and striving to achieve a cool, professional demeanour, we slipped in. 

And right infront of us were Sergio Batista and Jorge Burruchaga, stretching under the trainer’s hawk eyes. A little way away, Claudio Caniggia was taking a shot, with Sergio Goycochea beneath the goalpost. Meanwhile, coach Carlos Bilardo stood talking to his assistant and two other people. All this was enough to raise our excitement to fever pitch, but even as Abhijit began scurrying around, filming whatever he could, I was afraid that somebody would stop us, afraid of being humiliated.

Sergio Goycochea

All of which evaporated as I turned my head and suddenly, there he was – the five-foot-five-inch prince, Diego Maradona. He emerged from the dressing room carrying two balls, and all of us stopped dead on the tracks. The first thing he did was to kick one of the balls skyward, as high as it would go. What breath-taking majesty! As the ball descended from nearly 40 feet, he nonchalantly, almost carelessly, received it with his left foot. To my mind, it was almost as though the ball was seeking shelter there, with its rightful owner. And then came 15 minutes of solo practise and that was sheer magic to watch. 

It is literally impossible to describe in words the complete mastery that one man could exert over that round, chequered piece of leather. No matter that Argentina’s first match was against a relatively weak Cameroon, in Milan. Speaking to Bilardo, it was obvious that Maradona was treating the match with utmost seriousness, a sentiment echoed by the body language of his colleagues. Maradona stayed on the practise field for precisely 25 minutes. A little dribbling with teammates, seven or eight minutes of dead ball practise, over and out. Not for him the full 90 minutes of sweating it out, such compulsions clearly applied only to lesser mortals. 

All of which evaporated as I turned my head and suddenly, there he was – the five-foot-five-inch prince, Diego Maradona. He emerged from the dressing room carrying two balls, and all of us stopped dead on the tracks. The first thing he did was to kick one of the balls skyward, as high as it would go.

On the side-lines, at the end of the training session we met Amiya Tarafdar, the freelance photographer who had got Maradona to pose in a ‘namaaboli’ in 1986, a photograph that achieved immortality across the pages of almost every leading Indian newspaper. A veteran of multiple World Cups, his advice and support were invaluable to us on that trip.

Carlos Bilardo

Making our way to Milan, we were expecting a close-fought encounter, like the rest of the world. In their press statement, Cameroon had given every indication of fighting hard until the end, and all eyes were on their 38-year-old star Roger Milla, whom the football world knew as the ‘ball artist.’ And so on to San Siro Stadium. The first match of Italia ’90, and the first shock – Cameroon 1, Argentina 0. As stunned fans around the world struggled to come to terms with the score, and Argentinian supporters inside the stadium struggled to regain control of their jaws which were hanging almost down to the floor, the streets of Milan erupted in celebration, African style. André Kana-Biyik, the goal scorer for Cameroon, had set the tone for Italia ’90, which was to become full of surprises. 

The first match of Italia ’90, and the first shock – Cameroon 1, Argentina 0. As stunned fans around the world struggled to come to terms with the score, and Argentinian supporters inside the stadium struggled to regain control of their jaws which were hanging almost down to the floor, the streets of Milan erupted in celebration, African style. André Kana-Biyik, the goal scorer for Cameroon, had set the tone for Italia ’90, which was to become full of surprises.

Roger Milla

But through it all, Maradona’s magic never waned. Whatever else I remember about him (and that is a lot), I will forever remember the Argentina-Italy semi-final encounter at Naples. As waves of humanity rose and roared the words of ‘Un’estate Italiana’ (To Be Number One), the theme song that year, I noticed only the way Italian supporters were torn between their nation and one man – Maradona – who played for the local club side, Napoli. In their eyes, he was one of them, the magician who was almost single-handedly dragging humble Napoli up through the Serie A ranks, like a God with countless obsessed Italian fans. And yet, here he was, the enemy who had to be defeated in a needle-point game against their own country. Eventually, as Italy bowed out via a penalty shootout, the streets of Naples turned into a battle ground as thousands of supporters sought refuge in violence for venting out their emotional dilemma. 

That magician of 1986, the one whose magic I witnessed first-hand has called it a day. All dilemma has vanished. The world is weeping as one for the diminutive prince who was, in every other sense, a giant. As we watch countless reruns of his most spectacular goals, it is as though football itself is diminished by this loss. And we struggle to remind ourselves that Diego Armando Maradona was, after all, mortal. Like all mortals, he created memories both good and bad. But he is perhaps one of those rare mortals whose legacy, however flawed, will always be celebrated. 

Story Tag:
  • Diego Maradona

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