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Saturday, December 6, 2008

Maradona mania sweeps Kolkata

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's visit - his first to West Bengal after the Mumbai terror strikes - is set to recede to the background on popularity count, as Kolkatans brace up to give a rousing welcome to "God of football" Diego Maradona during his two-day visit on Saturday.

Singh's visit to Santiniketan and Malda, that coincides with that of the Argentinian soccer legend, has failed to evoke much popular curiosity, with the denizens making a mad scramble for entry passes to the series of programmes Maradona is scheduled to attend.

More than 100,000 football fans are expected to assemble Saturday at the Salt Lake Stadium, where Maradona would be given a felicitation 'worth remembering for years', with former soccer stars and eminent persons from other walks of life filling up the stands alongside commoners

Maradona, the most high-profile non-political visitor to the country after last week's terror attacks stunned the nation, arrives in the city in the wee hours Saturday, to a grand welcome by 25,000 people holding torches and lining the route from the NSC Bose International Airport to the hotel.

A makeshift podium has been erected outside the airport terminal for Maradona to wave at the thousands assembled there.

"But it's up to him to decide," said state sports minister Subhas Chakraborty.

Kolkata, India's soccer hub, is sure to sleep late Friday to have the first glimpse of the hero of Argentina's 1986 World Cup victory alighting on their home turf.

From the airport, the soccer star would be put onto a specially made bus, with giant sized windows, so that the people can see him.

Such is the craze that a sculptor from Asansol - about 206 km from the city - has made a statue of wax of the man jointly adjudged FIFA's best footballer of the 20th century alogn with Brazilian Pele.

"I started work only on Nov 14. It will be presented to Maradona," said sculptor Sushanta Roy.

"Maradona has faced lot of injustice. So, there is a lot of public sympathy for him," said Chakraborty.

On Saturday morning, Maradona would begin his schedule by flying out in a helicopter to the facility of one of the sponsors before laying the foundation stone of the Maradona Indian Football School at Mahestala, 13 km south of the city.

Maradona, accompanied by his girlfriend Veronica, would also be felicitated at Maheshtala before returning to his hotel for a media meet which would be followed by the felicitation at the giant Salt Lake Stadium in the afternoon.

"It will be a programme worth remembering for years. Don't miss the start and the end," said Chakraborty.

Maradona would kickstart a match between Foreign Minister's XI and Chief Minister's XI, where players turning out for various teams would take part. Among those seen in action would Bhaichung Bhutia ans Jose Barreto.

Later, External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee would inaugurate the felicitation proper.

Maradona would be showered with gifts, among which are golden replica of the stadium, and a left foot with a football.

He would also go around the stadium in the bus, before the function concludes with a pyrotechnic display.

On Saturday, Maradona would visit Mother House, the headquarters of the Missionaries of Charity founded by Mother Teresa. He would call on former state chief minister and communist patriarch Jyoti Basu at his Salt Lake residence.

Maradona would conduct a soccer clinic at the Mohun Bagan ground later in the day, before wrapping up his visit with a charity dinner at the hotel. Five jerseys and footballs autographed by the soccer megastar would come under the hammer at the dinner, the proceeds of which would go to the IFS.

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