His legacy inspired Bangladeshi football players from all backgrounds
Those who were born in the 80s or 90s and avidly support Argentina should be asked why they back the Albicelestes and not any other team. While one can never doubt the passion of these supporters who belong to the age range between 20-38, once faced with this query, most will say, because the team features Lionel Messi and that they won the World Cup under the captaincy of Diego Maradona.
In reality, prior to the 1986 World Cup, support for Argentine football in Bangladesh was limited. And there was a reason for it, too. The 1978 World Cup, which was held in Argentina and won by them under the captaincy of Daniel Passarella, was and is a bit of a blur to many fans here because the 1978 World Cup was a far-away event, with very few matches shown live. Even in 1982, most matches were not aired live but were recorded and then shown after the games were played.
As a result, the first golden team of Argentina, featuring stars like Kempes, Santa Maria, and Passarella Osvaldo Ardiles, is relatively unknown to most modern-day Argentine supporters.
But Maradona and the 1986 World Cup changed all that. It won’t be an exaggeration to state that Mexico 86 made Diego Maradona into a superstar. Others like Lineker, Michel Platini, Zico, Socrates, and Enzo Francescoli glittered, but were like the lesser gods of Olympus, with Diego appearing as Zeus.
As Maradona passes away, one cannot help but look back and think about the tremendous impact he had on football in Bangladesh, and in ensuring a large Argentina support base.
It all began in 86
During the 1986 World Cup, Argentina was certainly not one of the favourites. There was talk about Germany, Italy, and Brazil. Though some die hard fans knew Maradona, the diminutive dynamite was a dark horse to most.
As the tournament progressed, France seemed like a cohesive side and, once they beat Brazil, people started to take them seriously. However, by the quarter-finals, Maradona had won hearts, and against England, his individual skills mesmerized Bangladeshi fans in a way no other player had.
Zico was a shadow of himself, and the others were good but not sublime. Here was someone who inspired, delivered, and was also capable of mischief at the right moment.
Football is war, and Maradona knew how to use the skill of the perfect feint to get maximum points. The Hand of God goal triggered ferocious debate here too, though most decided to overlook it because the memory of the Falklands War was still vivid in the minds of Bangladeshis.
As Brazil was eliminated, there was only one team to support -- Argentina. There were West Germany fans, but they were few in number. Even in football, memories of the imperial past play a crucial role in cementing loyalty.
As a "third-world" country, Bangladeshis could relate well with the Latin Americans, who had also faced the same economic hardships and exploitation by the West.
Once the final came, there was complete support for Argentina, and after the game, Bangladeshis found a new hero in Diego.
Budding footballers’ icon
Football was already the major sport in the 80s and, in 1985, Bangladesh had played a scintillating game against India in the SAF Games final, with Aslam scoring an unforgettable volley from just above the half way line. While we lost in the tiebreakers, the Bangladesh team had shown that they were also a major force in South Asia. The Maradona craze added to the already existing football mania, inspiring players who lacked height.
Soon, Bangladesh got her own Maradona in Sabbir bin Walid, who looked and played just like Diego. In 1987, a year after the World Cup, there was another sensation called Monu, who was short, stout, and fast. Monu played for Mohammedan but in that year’s President Gold Cup, attracted attention with his dribbling, runs, and short passes. Monu also showed his prowess with a sensational volley goal against a Chinese side.
In a time when Maradona’s image was common on covers of exercise books, bottles, shirts, and lollipop wrappers, players like Maradona were the craze.
Fans in South Asia have always had a special corner for dribblers.
In 1989, another player called Gaus came to the scene, and he also fell into this category. Gaus later helped Abahani win the Club Cup in Dhaka, where the local giants beat their Indian counterparts Mohonbagan and East Bengal.
But Maradona’s greatest impact was on players from humble backgrounds. Since Diego came from a shanty town and knew squalor and privation, footballers who grew up in Dhaka’s slums felt they could emulate what their icon had achieved.
Many went on to play for top local clubs, whereas others, through perseverance, went on to represent mid-level clubs.
From the top tier to the third and pioneer level football, there were Maradona lookalikes. They sported the same hairstyle, wore locally produced Puma King boots, and made dribbling a main feature of their game. I can still recall a third division player called Nabisco who idolized Maradona. His daytime job was selling chickens at the Murgipotti in New Market.
It won’t be wrong to say that the story of Maradona overcoming poverty to reach the heights of wealth helped youngsters from underprivileged backgrounds pursue a dream.
There is a lot of brouhaha about the dark demons which haunted Diego, though I feel that everyone has frailties and, instead of focusing on the flaws, the spotlight should be on the redeeming aspects.
No person is above vice; it is wise to remember that, with so much money and fame, it’s often tough to keep temptations under control.
Maradona presented a template of a football player which included passion, fury, aggression, and a never-give-up attitude.
Oh yes, and the antics with the hand -- well, that is craftiness -- essential for any footballer. I hope you agree!
Towheed Feroze is a journalist and teaches at the University of Dhaka.