Former Kaizer Chiefs and Bafana Bafana midfielder Doctor Khumalo says he closely witnessed how Diego Maradona enjoyed a high status in Argentina during the South African’s brief spell in Buenos Aires with Ferro Carril Oeste in 1995.
Maradona passed away aged 60 on Wednesday of a heart attack, plunging the football world into mourning.
During his stint at Ferro Carril Oeste, on loan from Chiefs, Khumalo revisits the day at Boca Juniors’ home of La Bombonera where his team had visited for a league match.
Khumalo remembers how Argentina’s most iconic football ground reverberated when Maradona entered the stadium with his family.
“I remember the game we played against Boca Juniors on a Sunday‚ and we were warming up and I was wondering what all the hullabaloo was about,” Khumalo told Times Live.
“Because the stadium gets full at about 11 am. And‚ you must understand‚ that man is seen as a godfather of football‚ because football in Argentina is a sort of religion.
“In Argentina even the smaller teams get crowds. But when we played Boca‚ that was when I felt‚ ‘I am in Argentina’. I think there was five‚ 10 minutes left of the warm-up and I heard the crowd chanting‚ ‘Ma-ra-donna’. And I thought‚ ‘But this guy’s not playing’.
“Only to find that at the Boca Juniors' stadium he’s got his own private suite. So he just walked in with his family. And when I looked up I saw [Claudio] Caniggia‚ Maradona‚ the likes of [Gabriel] Batistuta‚ and I was like‚ ‘Wow.’”
Khumalo explains how fans reacted at the sight of Maradona while inside La Bombonera as if they were on pilgrimage at a sacred place.
“And then what he [Maradona] does is he walks up to the front of his private suite‚ where there’s like a glass‚ and he’ll bow east‚ bow south‚ and bow west,” said Khumalo.
“And when he bows the crowd [in that stand] acknowledge him by raising their hands and say something in Spanish – and the stand at the other side does the same. So it’s sort of a synchronised way of greeting. So I was trying to figure out if Maradona is the one who invites those guys [Canigga, Batistuta and Diego Simeone] to his private suite.
"But I must say that guy is something else‚ not just in Argentina but the whole of South America.”
Ferro Carril Oeste lost 2-1 to Boca Juniors that day, with Khumalo playing the entire match and he was to return to La Bombonera in May 1998 for Bafana’s international friendly match against Argentina.
South Africans will also have memories of Maradona when he graced the 2010 Fifa World Cup as the Argentina coach.
Even though La Albiceleste’s campaign ended at the quarter-final stage after being thrashed 4-0 by Germany in Cape Town, the Maradona effect was felt.
“I did say that without Maradona the World Cup in South Africa would never be the same,” said Khumalo. “And Maradona‚ even as a coach‚ was one of the stars of the World Cup.”