From legendary football players in their own right to young and aspiring sportsmen and women, the arrival this morning of one of the world's greatest football players of all time, Diego Maradona, has caused a wave of excitement among South Africans.
Former South African football great Mark Fish, who helped his country to its African Cup of Nations victory in 1996 and who took part in the 1998 FIFA World Cup has certainly met some well known sportsmen in his time, but his meeting with Maradona this afternoon at the High Performance Centre (HPC) at the University of Pretoria is one he will never forget.
“When I met him now I was lost for words, I literally had goose bumps all over. This really is a dream come true – his football ability was second to none,” said the former South African national player. “My friends and I often talk about who is the greatest player of all time but I know who it is, I now know I have met the greatest football player,” to which Maradona jokingly responded, “Yes my mother also thinks so,” as the two compared their Che Guevara tattoos.
As the Argentinian base camp for the 2010 FIFA World Cup, Maradona was at the HPC to tour the facilities and check up on the progress of the refurbishments ahead of the Albicelestes taking occupancy for their 2010 campaign.
As a centre of excellence for South African sportspeople, Maradona ran into a number of well known sporting personalities at the HPC, including South African swimmer Roland Schoeman who was amazed to meet one of his own sporting heroes. But it was Maradona who heaped the praise on Schoeman when he found out that he was an Olympic gold medalist, showing much enthusiasm in his sporting accomplishments in the pool.
They might not have been old enough to watch him play, but for the youngsters at the HPC they certainly knew all about the legend and clamoured for a picture with Maradona as he handed out shirts and caps to the University of Pretoria first division football team who are based at the centre.
“It is so great to meet the legend, we all love him and the way he played,” said one ecstatic young player who plans to frame his cap he received from Maradona to prove to his friends that he actually met the Argentinean great. For Matthew Russki, he never though he would see such a world renowned player right here in South Africa. “It is such a great feeling to have the greatest footballer of all time in our own back garden,” said the young football player who cannot wait until the world’s top footballers arrive in South Africa for the World Cup in June this year.
But it was nine-year-old Pablo Mckenzie who stole the show when he asked Maradona for an autograph. The young boy from Tshwane/Pretoria got more than he bargained for when the Argentinian coach bent down for a hug and continued to walk with him as they chatted about football.
“It is amazing to meet him, I have heard so much about this man,” said the startled youngster who certainly has high hopes of achieving his own fame on the field, being named after Argentinean football player Pablo Aimar.
During his whirlwind visit to the Argentinian World Cup base camp, Maradona also had business to attend to as he inspected the facilities that would form the base of his teams World Cup campaign as he was taken on a tour of the centre by the Chief Executive Officer of the HPC, Toby Sutcliffe.
Sutcliffe is confident that the Argentinians will be practicing with the best facilities possible come the World Cup during their stay at the HPC, which is currently hosting the Swedish Olympic swimming team and the Russian rugby team.
“A lot of planning has been taking place since September. The main field has been totally relaid and they have also requested three additional fields for recreational purposes. On top of this we are busy installing additional facilities such as Plasma televisions and Playstations for the players as requested by the team for their downtime.”
Maradona was obviously happy with what he saw, feeling confident of Argentina’s chances in the World Cup.
“We are very confident (with the facilities), we don't have anything to complain about. We hope to get as far as possible. We know we are not the favourites but we have a great desire. We want to break the curse after 24 years that we have not been given (the World Cup). The desire never goes away. The hope never goes away.”