Azteca stadium in Mexico and reviving Maradona memories!
Memories rush back, images of the 1986 World Cup flood my mind as I took my first step to reach Estadia Azteca in Mexico! On a private visit, it struck me can anyone miss the opportunity of visiting the venue of one of the greatest happening in world football...the rise of a legend going by the name Diego Armando Maradona!
It was a bright Friday morning with the sun sharp but not oppressive thanks to a cool breeze wafting across. Azteca is located on the Southern outskirts of the city, a good 30 km away and on the traffic-packed roads, the cab-ride took an agonisingly long time. Expectations grew and patience thinned for that moment that dreams are made of! And, reaching the place left me stunned!
For one, the gigantic structure was simply breathtaking, huge and stately. But the surroundings hardly lived upto the expectations that had piled up in the mind. It was not the huge gates and a no-nonsense security personnel who were hardly interested in somebody looking awestruck! But where are the telltale signs of the great times? No statues, busts or anything to suggest that this was the place where two of the greatest footballers had left their mark - Pele and Maradona.
If the 1970 world cup was all about Pele, then the 1986 edition was so much about Maradona's coronation. Seldom has a player dominated an event as the Argentine had. And yet nothing around to whet the appetite of a football lover! May be the dreams have not died, only just a pause, I tell myself as I proceed to enter the portals of the historic sporting venue.
In Mexico anything of importance is also watch-worthy for tourists. The Azteca stadium fell into this category and it was after joining an organised group led by a guide that one entered the stadium. If one thought the young lady-guide would throw a little light on the big two names or atleast the latest great, Maradona in her initial briefing, well that was not to be.
In we went, to gate number 8 which we were told was the entry to the field for the players. So this was the way that the 'great man' would have trooped in 33 years ago, I tell myself! It was entering here that one saw the first suggestion of remembrance of the great man - a photograph among the bunch of others in a board and showing Maradona holding aloft the FIFA World Cup trophy!
Then into the dressing room where the famed players had once patronaged but now housing an array of numbered seats for the current day players (incidentally the stadium is also the home of Mexico's popular clubs Club America and Cruz Azul aside from the national team) brought to light another indication of the great player even if through an imaginative football mind.
The white board in the room with field markings, used by Coaches to jot down on-field strategies, has the names of 'Messi' and 'Maradona' written near the striking area! Whoever wrote that surely had a fertile brain, for imagine a dream strike-line with these two big timers, what a potent attack it would be!
From there we trooped in line like a team would to emerge out of the tunnel, on to the wide arena and to an ecstatic setting. The bright green top looked in great shape even as cosmetic touches were on in preparation for an international match between Mexico and Panama scheduled two days later.
To think this was the turf that Maradona had strode on, bewitching his opponents with his craft, scoring goals of sheer wizadry and raising his stock as a football genius! Standing there by the green green grass, one's mind raced back to that action-packed World Cup of over three decades ago that television had brought to Indian homes.
Sadly, there were no seniors around to share the thoughts nor was one allowed to stray too far in search for one for such was the strong security vigil. Still in the mind's eye those goals, be it the brilliant solo against England (aside from that infamous so called hand of God) or the two gems against Belgium in the semi-final seemed so vivid but which part of the ground did he run in for those touches of magic?
Fortunately, there was no disappointment there. As though pre-programmed the young lady was quick to point to the goalposts on the Northern side and in a matter of fact way say in Spanish, translated to English it sounded like “Maradona's two goals, hand of God goal and the regular one next.” So much for her excitement!
How will she know the feelings of one who has travelled all the way from the other side of the globe where Maradona is considered akin to God, to be right there where a squat short man, a genius became a giant. How can one erase from memory those withering runs of this Argentine as he shred the English game.
Forget the hand-assisted goal but what answer did goalkeeper Shilton, who never misses an opportunity to call Maradona a cheat after that episode, have to the next when the great Argentine dribbled past four defenders before sending Shilton himself the wrong way to slot in? Later Belgium learnt to its peril the brilliance of Maradona.
As the thoughts freshened, it seemed everything had happened just the other day. Certain images never die and there watching the Azteca turf it was a strange experience of a footballing nirvana. Yet the nagging feeling was why the unmistakable low key reponse to the name Maradona.
Did the 'hand of God' incident affect Mexican football fans so much or was this to do with Maradona's later link with drugs. It is difficult to say but what was satisfying was that Maradona remained part of public domain. The legend was here until a month ago as the Coach of a Mexican professional club Dorados before health issues forced his return to Argentina. To an average Mexican it would seem the fascination is not history but action ahead. Already the wait is for 2026 World Cup, which Mexico is co-hosting with USA and Canada, and for Azteca to reignite!.