Kolkata:Thousands of torches and lamps dispelled the darkness of the night, as Kolkatans welcomed football legend Diego Armando Maradona to the city in a carnival atmosphere early on Saturday.
Accompanied by girlfriend Veronica, the Argentinian soccer genius touched down at the Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose International Airport at 1.25 a.m. on a two-day trip to the city, as 50,000 people lined the roads and uncountable more sat glued to their television sets to catch the first glimpse of the football wizard on their home turf.
The diminutive new Argentina soccer coach, in great spirits despite the fatigue of a 48-hour flight, was welcomed at the tarmac by West Bengal sports minister Subhas Chakraborty and the organizers with flowers.
From the airport, Maradona and Vernonica were put into a specially designed bus that had transparent windows to enable the soccer buffs have a momentary glance of the player, whose heroic performance enabled Argentina win the World Cup in 1986.
People, wearing Argentine jerseys and carrying Maradona's cutouts and posters welcoming him in multiple languages - English, Hindi, Bengali and Spanish - ran alongside the bus, as it hit the streets on the way to the hotel.
Maradona fans waved flags of India and Argentina and danced to the tune of foot-tapping Latin American music, besides raising slogans eulogising the football legend who would spend the next two days in the city laying the foundation stone of a soccer academy, visiting Mother House - the global headquarters of the Missionaries of Charity - and attending a charity dinner.
The unbridled enthusiasm of the soccer aficionados proved infectious, and Maradona rose from his seat in the bus to wave back at the crowd, as two thousand people held aloft lighted torches on both sides of the road.
Giving more Indian traditional touches to the welcome, there were saree-clad women with well-lit earthen lamps and those blowing conch shells to usher in the prince of football, who rose from a shanty town - Villa Fiorito - on the southern outskirts of Buenos Aires to reach the zenith of fame and fortune.
Passions ran high in Kolkata, cricket crazy India's soccer crazy hub, as old infirm men waited side by side with children not yet in their teens, able bodied youths and housewives for Maradona.
"I have been waiting for more than an hour.. I am a great fan of Maradona," said housewife Ratna Sen, who had travelled 25 kms to be a part of the occasion.
Colourful processions also came from various districts, and blue-white balloons resembling the colours of the Argentina jersey were released.
"Maradona is a phenomenon. This is a momentous occasion. It's the raw passion for soccer which has brought so many people on the roads," said former India international footballer and Arjuna awardee Prasun Banerjee, waiting on a city street.
More than 5000 policemen, including the Rapid Action Force and crack commandos were deployed on the entire route of Maradona's convoy to prevent any breach of peace.
A couple of over-enthusiastic teenagers were seen climbing lamp posts near the airports to hoist Argentine flags, forcing the security personnel to step in and bring them down.
On Saturday, Maradona would be felicitated at the Salt Lake stadium and would also call on communist patriarch Jyoti Basu.