DOHA, Qatar (AP) — No matter what happens on the pitch, this World Cup will be special for Argentina.
It will probably be the last World Cup for Lionel Messi and already the first since the death of Diego Maradona. The great Argentine died exactly two years ago on Friday.
Maradona, his country’s beloved football “god”, has represented Argentina at every World Cup since 1982 as a player, coach or elder statesman.
Maradona died on November 25, 2020 at the age of 60, a date most Argentines will never forget. He died after brain surgery while being treated at home in hospital, and law enforcement is still investigating whether medical negligence was involved.
Ahead of the 2022 World Cup, several honors were dedicated to Maradona in both Argentina and Qatar.
“Diego is immortal, he is still with us,” FIFA President Gianni Infantino said on Friday in front of a life-size Maradona statue unveiled at an event in Qatar organized by South American football’s governing body CONMEBOL.
“What this man did to make people fall in love with this sport, maybe no one else has.”
Infantino said that at every future World Cup a day will be set aside to celebrate Maradona.
“Everyone knows Diego’s unique sincerity and charisma,” Infantino said. “He was a great leader in Argentina, South America and around the world. We have to keep celebrating it.”
Several former Argentinian teammates of Maradona were at the event in Qatar. Argentinian fans planned to gather in Doha in his honor later on Friday.
A huge mural in Buenos Aires had already emerged from Maradona, who was wearing a national team jersey and holding his right hand in a fist, a defiant look on his face. The massive artwork is 148 feet tall and 131 feet wide (45 meters by 40 meters) and was painted on the side of a 14-story building in Argentina’s capital.
Another mural featuring images of Maradona was put together in Doha, not too many kilometers (miles) from where Lionel Messi and Argentina were shocked 2-1 by Saudi Arabia in the team start.
Messi, who is participating in his fifth World Cup, had told FIFA ahead of the Qatar tournament that it was “strange, different”, not seeing Maradona in the stands or “people go crazy when he shows up”. He said he felt Maradona would always be “present somewhere”.
Maradona played at four World Cups from 1982 to 1994 and was national coach in 2010.
Some of his best – and worst – moments came at the World Cup, from the ‘Hand of God’ goal against England in 1986 to his failed doping test that eliminated him from the tournament in 1994.
Maradona led Argentina to the title in 1986 when his hand goal against England in the quarter-finals became one of the biggest – and most controversial – in tournament history. In the same game, he also scored one of the all-time best World Cup goals after starting to overtake opponents on his own field.
Just before the start of the 2022 World Cup, the Argentine Football Federation received the original jersey Maradona wore at the 1986 World Cup as a gift from Germany’s great Lothar Matthäus, who swapped shirts with Maradona after Argentina’s 3-2 win at the Azteca Stadium in Mexico city.
As Argentina coach, Maradona led the national team to the quarter-finals in South Africa 2010 when they were eliminated by Germany.
One of the most disturbing images of the star at a World Cup came eight years later in Russia, when an overweight and somewhat disoriented Maradona collapsed at St Petersburg’s stadium after a 2-1 win over Nigeria as Messi scored one of the goals.
Messi, 35, is unlikely to be featured for another World Cup in four years. And unless he finds a way to guide this year’s side to a good result in Saturday’s second game against Mexico, Argentina’s first World Cup without Maradona will also end without Messi.
Associated Press writer Débora Rey in Doha, Qatar contributed to this report.
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