KOLKATA - Indian football fans gathered in Kolkata on Thursday to mourn the death of Argentine football legend Diego Maradona, whose mesmerizing performance and feats in the 1986 World Cup divided fan loyalties in the city.
The 1986 FIFA World Cup in Mexico, which Maradona helped the Argentine team lift, was the first World Cup to be live telecast in India. His dribbling skills and legendary performances as he slalomed a path through defences during the tournament earned him and the Argentine team legions of fans in the country.
"Maradona made people fall in love with Argentina," said Samudra Bose, who was among the hundreds that gathered in Kolkata to pay respects.
"Before Maradona and the 1986 World Cup people were mostly fans of Brazil, but Maradona after the 1986 World Cup divided Kolkata in two halves."
Kolkata, the capital of West Bengal, and the states of Kerala and Goa have long had large soccer followings in an otherwise cricket-crazed country.
Maradona visited Kolkata twice and his connection with the city was cemented in 2017 when he personally unveiled a statue of himself holding the World Cup, in the presence of thousands of fans.
When his death was reported on Wednesday, shocked fans began to gather around the statue.
"Bengalis have always loved skilful football and after Pele, no one embodied this more than Maradona," Mamun Aktar said.
On Thursday, fans held a prayer ceremony beside the statue and reminisced about Maradona's feats and visits. Blue and white flowers and Argentina's albiceleste colours surrounded his statue, and large screens allowed fans to relive his most memorable performances.
Subrata Dutta, a senior Indian FA official, said Maradona's emotional connection with fans set him apart.
"Maradona lived in Argentina, but resided in the hearts of his fans," said Dutta, who met Maradona in 2008.
Tributes poured in from beyond too. Sourav Ganguly, former captain of India's cricket team, who is an avid football fan, said in a tweet: "My hero no more...my mad genius rest in peace...I watched football for you."
(Reporting and writing by Euan Rocha and Sudpito Ganguly; Editing by Angus MacSwan) ((email@example.com; +91 22 6180 7257; Reuters Messaging: firstname.lastname@example.org))