It was June 27, 2010. The FIFA World Cup in South Africa has been going on for some time and it was a highly anticipated round of 16 clash.
Before the tournament began on June 11, fans from around the world had reached the shores of South Africa to cheer up their teams. Everywhere you look, there were fans in colorful clothes and helmets, one of their love for the beautiful game. Johannesburg is the centerpiece of the 2010 FIFA World Cup. The main stadium was called Soccer City and was nicknamed ‘Calabash’ for its resemblance to African gourds. The stadium’s capacity is 94,736, making it Africa’s largest stadium.
The largest party in the world went well and really.
The match of the day was a mouth-watering clash between two-time world champion Argentina and Mexico. It was a knock-out encounter and could reach the quarter-finals.
It was a special day for TV news sports reporters to broadcast the World Cup in South Africa as part of a five-man crew. This was the first time I was watching a FIFA World Cup match at the stadium. My cameraman and I were running late because we had to complete another work assignment and then dash to the soccer city where the match was being played. Within minutes of kickoff we were able to get into our seats. Some magical minutes are gone. Alas.
What struck me first was the sound. There was a certain vibrancy emanating from the over 95,000 people overflowing in the giant stadium (including press members and VIPs). The official attendance number for fans for that match was 84,377.
I was told earlier that Argentine fans might be loud. That would be an understatement.
There is no doubt that the Argentines outnumber the Mexicans in a stadium full of rafters. And boy was he having a good time. When I take in the intimidating scenes of the stadium completely bathed in blue and white, I spend a good five minutes watching the fans, dancing, singing, drinking beer, waving and chanting on their wuzulas in the stands of ‘Calabash’. I was soaking in the atmosphere. This claim lived right here in front of me, a breathtaking proof that a beautiful game is the most popular sport in the entire world. Anyone who has followed the FIFA World Cup for the first time on TV in 1990, the first half hour of this personal experience is surreal to say the least.
I have seen many football matches in stadiums. I saw Sachin Tendulkar scoring his first ODI double in Gwalior Stadium, watching the men’s singles final at the Australian Open at the stadium between Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray in Melbourne. But I have never seen this raw, vibrant energy that took on a life of its own in that stadium in Johannesburg ten years ago. That is the magic of the World Cup.
Hernandez, Oscar Perez and others came to mind when I realized that the World Cup was ahead of me, like Lionel Messi, Carlos Tevez, Gonzalo Higuain, Juan Sebastian Veron, Javier Macherano, Angel Di Maria, Sergio Aguero, Sergio Romero, Javier. ‘Watch the match!’ Shouted my brain. ‘Don’t miss a second of it!’
Our seats are some of the best in the house. We were just a few rows behind the Argentine groove. Messi and Tevez were in front of us. No binoculars needed here.
And then I recognized him.
The Argentine coach is dressed in a gray-gray dress, shouting instructions to players moving from side to side and having a quick conversation with their support staff. It took me a few seconds to process the fact that I was the only person who brought Argentina to the 1986 World Cup title, the same guy who pulled the most outrageous goal in sports history. The same man who scored goals with the left fist, English midfield and defense, later voted as the target of the century, leading his team to the final of the 1990 World Cup, losing only a heartbreaking 85-minute penalty kick to West Germany and tagging Pele with 0-1 to West Germany. The same person who was made. This is Diego Armando Maradona. That’s when I took my phone off to start recording.
He was constantly on his feet. A small bundle of supercharged energy.
One can imagine what a player of his caliber should be thinking when he sees his team play live side by side. Permutations and combinations that must be running through his brain.
Being unequivocal is his absolute strength. The Maradona coach was always involved in what was happening. From talking to players on the bench, shouting instructions to players on the pitch, celebrating as a lively young man every time his team scores. G as a player on that Argentina team. Most, if not all, at one point in their lives saw Maradona as their idol. They all wanted to make him happy.
The decibel level in the stadium was no longer able to rise. Still, every time Maradona talks to Messi, the crowd still explodes. It was the pleasure of the photographer. The two best footballers in Argentina have built in one frame. Shutter bugs can click on thousands of photos per second. Excitement spilled through our veins. Precious.
In June 2008, Maradona was named national coach. His tenure ended after this World Cup. In many ways Albiseleste wanted him to win. Remember the last Argentine captain to shake hands in a World Cup trophy in 1986?
This match had almost everything. Superstar players, great goals, great opportunities, a power atmosphere, a legend as a coach and a player’s turmoil.
The Argentine side quarreled after half-time whistling between players on the bench. And Maradona was also involved. Playing Peacemaker is to calm players down and help them break up the fight. Not a single Mexican player disrespected him. He’s a low man in that frenzied player’s uproar, but his stance is huge.
It was magical to see the way Maradona responded every time Argentina scored a goal. Carlos Tevez scored twice in the game and Gonzalo Higuain was one and Maradona celebrated with players like him. You can take one person out of the game, but you can’t get the man out of the game. Especially someone who is synonymous with football and always has been.
The Mexicans pulled one back through the extremely talented Javier Hernandez. But with a final scoreline of 3-1, Maradona emerged victorious and defeated Mexico, which fans had come to see.
He had come to see his team play with his trademark chutzpah, his brand of football, which had won the 1978 and 1986 World Cups. He had come to see Lionel Messi’s magic work. He had come to see Albisellest emerge victorious. And he had come to see Maradona. Coach, former player, star, legend. And for about two hours, they got it all.
At the 2010 FIFA World Cup, Argentina and Maradona traveled to the quarter-finals of the next round to beat Germany 0-4.
The memories of that special night in Johannesburg will last a lifetime. This is the Maradona I remember.
Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author’s own.