In terms of football fandom, India was a land of Brazil till the mid-1980s. The Brazilian samba led by Pele and his compatriots had penetrated the hearts of Indians by the 1960s. This was overturned with the rise of an enigma — Diego Armando Maradona. Indians have always been great lovers of the art of dribbling, and Maradona had attained the stature of a magical dribbler in his teens, leading Argentina to win the FIFA Youth World Cup in 1979. In 1982, for the first time, a few World Cup matches were telecast live in India. Although not a great tournament for Argentina, Maradona showed his mettle. Faced with brutal tackles and serial fouls from the defenders, Maradona hit back at a Brazilian player to earn a red card and leave the World Cup in 1982, followed by his team’s exit.
Come 1986 Mexico. World Cup matches were telecast live for the first time on television in a large number of countries in Asia, including India. The Cup hosted a galaxy of soccer stars — Zico, Michel Platini, Enzo Scifo, Gary Linekar and Karl-Heinz Rummenigge — but all were overshadowed by Maradona. Argentina won the Cup for the second time under Maradona’s captaincy. The display of his mesmerising skill and brilliant goals bewitched millions across the world. The classic Argentina vs England match saw Maradona’s infamous “hand of god” goal as well as his “goal of the century”. Both raised his stature to something unprecedented — a football god in the making.
The rise of Maradona transformed Indians’ predominant sober Brazilian fan identity into aggressive Argentine fandom. The Indian media, too, placed him on such a high pedestal that he replaced Pele as the last word in football. The “hand of god”, at least in India, helped in his deification. There was a very popular saying in Bengal in the late 1980s — god is 5’5” tall, because that was Maradona’s height.
Controversies and inconsistencies on and off the field accompanied Maradona as he grew up to become the world’s greatest football icon of the time. But his presence in the World Cup was something that made the average Indian emotionally committed to him and to Argentina. Diehard Maradona fans in India in the late 1980s patiently awaited the next World Cup to watch their hero play again.
Maradona’s unnatural talent and the increasing foul play to contain him on the field seemed to have given Indians a deeper sense of emotional appreciation of the man on and off the field. Team Argentina was not that strong in 1990, yet their coach Bilardo declared that his team had “Diego plus 10 other players” — close to the Indian belief in him as a superman. Although Argentina reached the final thanks to Maradona’s magic and Sergio Goycochea’s goalkeeping brilliance, it was defeated by Germany by a disputed penalty awarded by the Mexican referee Edgardo Codesal Mendez. Argentina fans all over the country, unable to put up with such “injustice” and the subsequent sight of Maradona in tears, staged public demonstrations, went in agitated processions with vociferous slogans, burnt Mendez’s effigy, and demanded his prosecution and hanging.
Between 1990 and 1994, Maradona’s career was plagued by drug scandals and character assassinations. He was suspended for 15 months in 1991-92 for using cocaine. He dominated global football news for all the wrong reasons. But Indians were firm, as he himself also probably was, that he would play and bounce back in the 1994 World Cup. He did. However, he tested positive in a drug test and was banned from the Cup. Maradona, claiming innocence, cried like a child and so did his fans around the world and in India. Indians even went on to argue that if the prohibited substance which he took could produce a football wizard like him, it should be allowed.
The personality cult that developed around Maradona made a whole generation of Indians Argentina fans. Post Maradona, the legacy continued with Indians looking for an incarnation of his prodigious talent in the likes of Ariel Ortega, Juan Roman Riquelme or Lionel Messi. The public hysteria during Maradona’s two visits to Kolkata in 2008 and 2017 surprised Maradona himself. Thus, Maradona remains an unmatched phenomenon for his fans in India. Maradona’s genius and emotion transcended all his childishness, indiscipline, addictions, scandals and wrongs to make him a supernatural Indian hero.
This article first appeared in the print edition on December 4, 2020 under the title ‘Maradona nation’. The writer is a sports historian and deputy executive editor, Soccer & Society (Routledge).