It was the 27th of June 2010. The FIFA World Cup in South Africa had been on for a while and it was time for a highly anticipated Round of 16 clash.
Fans from across the world had reached South African shores to cheer for their teams well before the tournament began on June 11. Everywhere you looked, there were fans in colourful clothes and headgear, united by their love of the beautiful game. Johannesburg was the main centre of the 2010 FIFA World Cup. The main stadium was called Soccer City and nicknamed the ‘Calabash’, for its resemblance with the African gourd. The capacity of the ground was 94,736, making it the largest stadium in Africa.
The biggest party in the world was well and truly on.
The match of the day was a mouthwatering clash between two time World champions Argentina and Mexico. It was a knockout encounter, with a passage to the quarter finals up for grabs.
As a TV news sports reporter sent to cover the World Cup in South Africa as part of a five man crew this was a special day. It would be the first time I would be watching a FIFA World Cup match live in the stadium. My cameraperson and I were running late, because we had to complete another work assignment and then dash over to Soccer city where the match was being played. We managed to get into our seats just a few minutes after kickoff. A few magical minutes lost. Alas.
The first thing that hit me was the sound. There was a certain pulsating energy that emanated from the almost 95,000 people who were packed in the giant stadium (including members of the press and VIPs). The official attendance figure for just fans for that match was 84,377.
I had been told earlier that Argentina fans can be loud. That was an understatement.
There was no doubt that the Argentinians outnumbered the Mexicans in the stadium that was packed to the rafters. And boy were they having a good time. As I took in the rather intimidating scenes of the stadium, almost completely bathed in blue and white, I realised that for a good five minutes or so I was just watching the fans, dancing, singing, sipping beer, blowing on their vuvuzelas and chanting in the stands of the ‘Calabash’. I was soaking in the atmosphere. This right here in front of me was living, breathing proof of why the beautiful game is the most popular sport in the whole world. As someone who followed a FIFA World Cup from first to last match for the first time in 1990 on TV, the first half an hour or so of this personal experience was surreal to say the least.
I have watched multiple football matches in stadiums. I witnessed Sachin Tendulkar score the first ODI double century in the history of the game live in the Gwalior stadium, I have watched a Men’s singles final at the Australian Open live in the stadium in Melbourne between Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray. But never have I witnessed this raw, pulsating energy that took on a life of its own in that stadium in Johannesburg ten years ago. That is the magic of a football World Cup match I guess.
When the realisation dawned that there was actually a World Cup match on right in front of me, with the likes of Lionel Messi, Carlos Tevez, Gonzalo Higuain, Juan Sebastian Veron, Javier Macherano, Angel Di Maria, Sergio Aguero, Sergio Romero, Javier Hernandez, Oscar Perez and others in action I was shaken out of my reverie. ‘Watch the match!’ shouted my brain. ‘Don’t miss a second of it!’
Our seats were some of the best in the house. We were just a few rows behind the Argentina dugout. The likes of Messi and Tevez were right there in front of us. No need for binoculars here.
And then I spotted him.
Dressed in a dark grey suit and moving from side to side shouting instructions to players on the ground and having quick conversations with his support staff was the Argentina coach. It took me a few seconds to process the fact that this was the same man who had almost single handedly taken Argentina to the 1986 World Cup title, the same man who had pulled off the most outrageous non goal in the history of the sport with his left fist, the same man who had cut through the English midfield and defense to score a goal which was later voted as the goal of the century, the same who had taken his team to the final of the 1990 World Cup, only to lose heartbreakingly to West Germany 0-1 after an 85th minute penalty kick and the same man who was tagged the best footballer of all time, alongside Pele. This was Diego Armando Maradona. That was when I took out my phone to start recording.
He was constantly on his feet. A small bundle of supercharged energy.
One can only imagine what a player of his calibre must be thinking about while watching his team play a live match from the sidelines. The permutations and combinations that must have been racing through his brain.
What was unmistakable was his sheer energy. Maradona the coach was always involved in anything that was happening. From talking to the players on the bench, to shouting instructions to players on the pitch, to celebrating like an enthusiastic youngster every time his team scored. Imagine being a player in that Argentina team. Most, if not all of them, would have at some point in their lives looked up to Maradona as their idol. They all wanted to make him happy.
It was almost impossible perhaps for the decibel level in the stadium to go up anymore. And yet, every time Maradona had a word with Messi, the crowd would erupt some more. It was a photographer’s delight. The two best footballers Argentina has ever produced in one frame. The shutterbugs clicked a thousand photos a second. The excitement coursed through our veins. Priceless.
Maradona was appointed national coach in June 2008. His tenure ended right after this World Cup. In many ways the Albiceleste wanted to win for him. Remember the last Argentina captain who had his hands on the coveted World Cup trophy was this man, back in 1986.
This match had almost everything. Superstar players, good goals, great chances, an electric atmosphere, a legend on the sidelines as coach and even a player scuffle.
A fight broke out after the half time whistle with Argentina up 2-0 between players from either side who were on the bench. And Maradona was involved in this as well. Playing peacemaker, calming down the players and helping in breaking up the fight. Not a single Mexican player disrespected him. He was the shortest man in that frenzied player scuffle, but his stature was the biggest.
It was magical to see the way Maradona reacted every time Argentina scored. Carlos Tevez scored twice in the match and Gonzalo Higuain got one and Maradona celebrated with the players like he was one of them. You can take a man out of the game, but you can’t take the game out of a man. Especially someone who was and will always be synonymous with football.
The Mexicans pulled one back via the extremely talented Javier Hernandez. But the final scoreline of 3-1, with Maradona’s team emerging victorious and knocking out Mexico is what the fans had come to see.
They had come to see their team play with the trademark chutzpah of their unique brand of football that had seen them win the 1978 and 1986 World Cups. They had come to see Lionel Messi work his magic. They had come to see the Albiceleste emerge triumphant. And they had come to see Maradona. The coach, the former player, the star, the legend. And for about two hours they got all that and more.
Argentina and Maradona’s journey at the 2010 FIFA World Cup ended in the next round with a 0-4 loss to Germany in the quarter finals.
The memories of that special night in Johannesburg will last a lifetime. It’s the Maradona I remember.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.