South Africa

OPINION | My time with flawed Argentinean genius Diego Armando Maradona

Unexpected opportunities often lead to events we never thought possible and those rare moments leave an indelible mark that time will never be erased.

These are the moments that usually alter our lives forever and leave lasting memories that even the inevitable passage of time cannot alter.

My once in a lifetime opportunity happened a little over a decade ago when I was part of the inner circle of legendary Argentinean footballer Diego Armando Maradona.

The 60-year-old died of a heart attack at his home near Buenos Aires on Wednesday and memories of the time we spent with him during the 2010 World Cup in SA came rushing back when I heard the shocking news on the radio.

My first encounter with him was when he arrived at the University of Pretoria (Tuks) prior to the World Cup to inspect the facilities at a venue the Argentinean national team was to use during the global showpiece.

He returned to SA at the start of the event with a team that was teeming with the talents of the likes of Lionel Messi‚ Sergio Aguero‚ Carlos Tevez‚ Javier Mascherano and Juan Veron.

I was working for the 2010 Local Organizing Committee as a media officer during the tournament and our duties included‚ among other things‚ arranging and scheduling interviews for him as the Argentina national team coach.

I learned very quickly that he was a carefree soul who was always willing to engage with the people around him‚ even though his watertight security detail often prevented him from expressing himself freely.

Just as he did during his playing days‚ the slippery coach would often find a way to dribble past his experienced protectors and engage with ordinary people who wanted a piece of him.

I guess the reason he was never hurt by strangers whenever he escaped his protectors was because he was adored my millions of people wherever he travelled around the world.

One of my standout memories was when he visited a school in Soshanguve during the first trip and one of the learners cried hysterically because he wanted to leave with him.

And as was to be expected‚ the Argentinean also had a naughty side. There were times when we had our hands full with and he made requests that cannot be divulged on these pages because what happened at the Sheraton Hotel in Pretoria‚ stays at the Sheraton Hotel in Pretoria.

We were responsible for planning and executing his match day press conferences at Loftus and these events were always oversubscribed and chaotic.

In one of these media events‚ he jumped over the perimeter fencing in the press conference room to greet someone he knew from their playing days and had not seen for many years.

He was not supposed to have done this but ‘El Diego’ lived by his own rules and that little stunt proved to be good content for the many journalists who were in attendance.

Such was the huge interest in him in his native Argentina that his media events were broadcast live back home‚ and rolling coverage accompanied everything he did‚ including the team's training sessions.

Away from the glare of the cameras‚ Maradona was more himself and we discovered that he had a great sense of humour. His humour was infectious‚ even though some of us didn't understand Spanish and only laughed after someone had translated his jokes.

People around him were always in stitches because of the funny things he used to say or do. One of his assistants told us that cracking joke was his way of unwinding and finding inner peace.

He also had a fiery side to him and his short fuse would emerge when things were not going his way. He would become a bit of a prima donna when plans were not executed to his liking or according to his expectations.

Those days are long gone and what is left are fond memories that often flood back whenever I see him on television‚ online or when someone has written about him.

His battles with his health have been well documented and I was hoping that he would pull through after they once again came to the fore a few weeks ago. But it was not to be and he is now with the creator who blessed him with the kind of gift that only comes along once in a generation.

It is worth noting that due to his chaotic nature‚ there are some he crossed paths with over the years who will not be as enthusiastic about celebrating his life as some of us. I have nothing but fond memories of the man and they will stay with me for the rest of my days.

I enjoyed the madness‚ the unpredictability‚ the tantrums‚ the jokes‚ his smile and the funny dance with that shortened left leg. I never got to understand why in the world he wore watches on both hands‚ but I enjoyed that too.

The flawed genius is gone and those of us who were lucky enough to have been afforded the ‘once in a lifetime’ opportunity of being close to him are left with the fond memories.

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