Football academy a non-starter 9 years after Maradona laid foundation stone

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Maheshtala (West Bengal), Sep 1 (IANS) When Argentine legend Diego Maradona returns to football crazy Kolkata a month from now, he would be in for a shock: a football school whose foundation stone he had laid here and even donated his tie to raise funds for nine years ago is a maze of shrubs with no work done till date.

The fancifully christened Maradona Indian Football School was slated to come up over 53 acres in this small town, 13 kms south of Kolkata.

Hope was in the air on December 6, 2008, when the little dynamo unveiled the foundation stone at the press of a button and then touched it, to thunderous applause from thousands of fans.

Clad in denims, and in high spirits, the football magician had clapped, throwing flying kisses and waving at the crowd, as 100 children displayed ball-juggling skills.

Cut to 2017 when an IANS correspondent visited the area: he found the place unkempt, and surrounded by tall buildings with shrubs growing on what should have been the playing turf for budding footballers.

A few people who were idling around on the weekend afternoon had no idea that a football school was supposed to be set up there.

“I didn’t know about any academy here. There have been no signs of a football academy here,” a resident said.

An old timer of the area said no work has been done since that December morning when he came with his family to catch a glimpse of Maradona.

“I am not surprised. These are always false promises and nothing concrete comes out of it. I think that’s an open secret. I think Maradona does not care as well,” he joked.

However, back then, Maradona had sounded confident and upbeat about the academy.

“We have drawn up a very serious project for these kids, give them the infrastructure. If there is a serious project then I am willing to help in taking Indian football to the next level,” the hero of Argentina’s World Cup win in 1986 had said at a fund raising dinner for the academy in Kolkata on December 7, 2008.

The dinner fetched more than Rs 1.7 million through auction of the former Napoli star’s sporting gear.

The climax came when Maradona took off his tie and put it under the hammer. The bids started from Rs 250,000, and went up to Rs 500,000.

This time around, the 56-year-old Maradona will land here on October 2 and is scheduled to play the ‘Match for Unity’ involving former India cricket captain Sourav Ganguly.

In 2008, when Maradona made his maiden trip, the Left Front ruled West Bengal. But since 2011, Trinamool Congress is in the saddle.

Senior Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) leader Samik Lahiri was the Lok Sabha member from the area (under Diamond Harbour constituency) then. He played a major part in getting Maradona on board.

“The initial plan was to set up a modern residential academy. It was initially thought that work will start by 2009 but then Trinamool Congress wrested control of the municipality that year and work was stalled,” Lahiri told IANS.

Lahiri, now the CPI-M’s South 24-Parganas district secretary, alleged that the Trinamool government didn’t take the project forward.

“The ground for the academy was supposed to be ready by 2012. The academy was to come up by 2014. Twenty-three acres of land was given by the Left Front government to the Maheshtala municipality for the academy. More land was supposed to be sanctioned later. But since power changed hands, nothing has been done,” he said.

“The Assembly standing committee had recommended that the remaining land be handed over to the municipality immediately for setting up the academy. But again nothing was done. This was in 2016.”

Trinamool leader Dulal Das, chairman of the Maheshtala Municipality, breathed fire when told of Lahiri’s allegations.

“Maradona was brought by him (Samik Lahiri) as he wanted to win the 2009 (Lok Sabha) elections. He lost. After Trinamool came to power, we found no work had been done. We have since then tried to restore the land, but now it is costing us roughly Rs 50 crore just to acquire it,” he said.

“We have already spent Rs 3.83 crore for the 23 acres of land. For the remaining 30 acres, that is yet to be handed over, we need to spend around Rs 44 crore. If they (previous government) had started work during their tenure, there wouldn’t have been such a monetary drain. The place is now barren and no work has been done,” he said.

Former India international Shyam Thapa expressed his disgust.

“This is called our momentary love for football greats. We go mad when someone like Maradona comes and then we forget what was promised,” Thapa rued.

(Debayan Mukherjee can be contacted at [email protected])

–IANS

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