Sunil Chhetri Recalls Meeting Maradona & Learning From The Legend
The Indian football captain pays a tribute to Diego Maradona.
Widely rated as the greatest footballers of all time, there was no stopping Diego Maradona's aura from reaching levels of divinity wherever he went, with or without the ball on his feet.
It was evident when Maradona arrived in Kolkata in 2008 and 2017 to cheering crowds. He had been retired from the game for well over a decade by then and his health was making more headlines than any football-related activities. None of that mattered for the more than 1,00,000 people who flocked to the Salt Lake Stadium on 6 December 2008.
It was also evident by the flood of tributes that came from all walks of life as news of his death spread around the world on 25 November 2020.
Among the many fans Maradona leaves behind is Indian football captain Sunil Chhetri.
“I have memories of my father and uncles telling me what a magician he was. Later on, when I could get some DVDs of his to watch, I quickly realised why people spoke so highly of him,” said Chhetri recalling his earlier memories of Maradona.
The football legend visited India twice in his lifetime, in 2008 and in 2017. On his first trip, Chhetri was part of a team that played a friendly match in front of the the Argentine hero.
“Before that day, the euphoria around his arrival in Kolkata was maddening but I was thinking that maybe I am not on the same page as everyone because I had not seen him. But the moment I met him, I realised the aura he had. Every one of us were trying to just go and touch time, talk to him or maybe listen to a few words. He just had that kind of presence.”
“Backing your skills and backing your talent is the kind of thing you learn from Maradona. He had been through so many phases, many highs and lows, but every time he was on the pitch he backed himself so much. No one could do what he did but the one thing we learned from him was to back yourself and try to deliver of the pitch,” said Chhetri talking about his greatest learning from Maradona’s career.
Born in a slum area in the southern outskirts of Buenos Aires on 30 October 1960, Maradona made his senior debut for Buenos Aires-based Argentinos Juniors in 1976. He went on to a play for Argentine giants Boca Juniors in the 1981-82 season. He then shifted to Europe where he spent two tumultuous seasons with Spanish giants Barcelona. His tenure with the Catalan club ended with a nasty brawl that triggered crowd trouble in the 1984 Copa del Rey final against Athletic Bilbao.
Maradona then went to Italian club Napoli, where he had arguably the most productive period of his career. He won two Serie A titles, a Coppa Italia and one UEFA Cup in his seven seasons with the club, leaving as their all-time highest goalscorer, a record that stood until Marek Hamsik overtook his tally in 2017. He went on to spend a season each at Spanish club Sevilla and Argentina's Newell's Old Boys before ending his career at Boca.
Maradona played at a time when global broadcast deals were not even in the sphere of relevances for most European football leagues which meant that most of the world got a glimpse of Maradona only when he turned out for the Albiceleste of Argentina at the World Cup. He was immortalised in his country and beyond by his performance in the 1986 World Cup, particularly, the quarter-final against England in which he scored two of the most famous goals in the hallowed history of the tournament.
The first goal was scored with his hand and his explanation in the immediate aftermath that he had made contact with the ball "a little with his head, and a little with the hand of God", led to the goal being known as "The Hand of God".
Four minutes later, Maradona went on a 60-yard run with the ball from midfield, dribbling past six English players, and ended the move with a feint that left goalkeeper Peter Shilton on the ground, and scored what has since been called "The Goal of the Century".
The extremes of his life are best summarised by the fact that his 17-year-long international career, which perhaps did more to forge an identity for Argentine football than anything else, ended when he was sent home from the 1994 World Cup after a failed drug test. He played only two matches in the tournament.
It may have been an ignominious end but hardly a surprising one. Fans had long accepted that Maradona's devils were part of the package – a package that was too good to hate.
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