Sports

Maradona's World Cup absence 'strange' for Messi, Argentina

DOHA, Qatar — (AP) — For the first time since the 1978 World Cup, Argentina is without Diego Maradona on soccer's biggest stage.

The team could use him more than ever as the South American team is off to a rocky start at the tournament.

Friday marked the second anniversary of Maradona’s death, and both Argentina and FIFA commemorated the day in Qatar.

A few thousand Argentina fans gathered at Doha’s historic Souq Waqif market to honor Maradona and show their support to the national team. They filled the streets with the blue-and-white Argentina flag and constantly chanted Maradona songs.

“We miss him too much. He was always there for us,” 64-year-old Julio Valsi said. “But we can still feel him. I'm sure he will be looking over the national team from wherever he is. We need him to help us right now."

It's already a strange World Cup for Argentina even without Maradona.

Lionel Messi is making what is expected to be his final appearance at the World Cup and the team lost 2-1 to Saudi Arabia in one of the tournament's biggest upsets.

“We hope that some of Maradona's bravery will somehow help our team in this difficult moment,” said 56-year-old Claudio Martin.

Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni said before Saturday's decisive match against Mexico that he hoped to “bring some joy to Maradona if he is looking down at us from the sky.”

"Every time we see images of him, it’s unbelievable he is not here with us,” he said.

Maradona, his nation's beloved soccer “God," had been a presence for Argentina at every World Cup since 1982 as a player, coach and elder statesman.

Maradona died at age 60 on Nov. 25, 2020, a date most Argentines will never forget. He passed away while under hospital care in his home following brain surgery, and judicial authorities continue to investigate if medical negligence was involved.

Several tributes were dedicated to Maradona before the 2022 World Cup, both in Argentina and in Qatar.

“Diego is immortal, he is still with us,” FIFA president Gianni Infantino said Friday in front of a real-size statue of Maradona unveiled at an event in Qatar organized by South American soccer confederation CONMEBOL.

“What this man has done to get people to fall in love with this sport, maybe nobody else has been able to do," he said.

Infantino said that at every World Cup going forward will be a day reserved to celebrate Maradona.

“Everyone knows about the unique sincerity and charisma that Diego had,” Infantino said. “He was a great leader in Argentina, South America and the entire world. We have to keep celebrating him.”

Several former Argentina teammates of Maradona were at the event in Qatar.

In Buenos Aires, a huge mural had already emerged of Maradona wearing a national team jersey and holding his right hand in a fist, a defiant expression on his face. The massive piece of artwork climbs 148 feet high and 131 feet wide (45 meters by 40 meters) and was painted on the side of a 14-story building in the Argentine capital.

Another mural with images of Maradona was put together in Doha not too many kilometers (miles) from where Messi and Argentina were shocked by Saudi Arabia in the team's first group stage match.

Messi, playing in his fifth World Cup, had told FIFA ahead of the Qatar tournament that it was “strange, different” not to see Maradona in the tribunes or the “people going crazy when he appears.” He said he felt Maradona would always “be present somewhere."

Maradona played in four World Cups from 1982 to 1994, and was the coach of the national team 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 got him expelled from the tournament in 1994.

Maradona led Argentina to the title in 1986, when his hand goal in the quarterfinals against England became one of the greatest — and most controversial ones — in tournament history. In that same match, he also scored one of the best World Cup goals ever after a run past opponents that began on Argentina’s own field.

Not long before the 2022 World Cup kicked off, the Argentine soccer association received the original shirt that Maradona wore in the 1986 tournament as a gift from Germany great Lothar Matthaus, who exchanged jerseys with Maradona after Argentina's 3-2 win at Azteca Stadium in Mexico City.

As Argentina’s coach in 2010 in South Africa, Maradona led the national team to the quarterfinals, when it was 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 the stadium in St. Petersburg following a 2-1 victory over Nigeria, when Messi scored one of the goals.

The 35-year-old Messi likely won't be back for another World Cup four years from now. And if he can’t find a way to lead this year's team to a good result against Mexico, Argentina’s first World Cup without Maradona will come to an end without Messi as well.

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Associated Press writer Débora Rey in Doha, Qatar, contributed to this report.

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AP World Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/world-cup and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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Tales Azzoni on Twitter: http://twitter.com/tazzoni