A World Cup without Maradona
As the 14th minute came up on the clock at the Krestovsky Stadium in Russia where Argentina were playing a do-or-die World Cup group match against Nigeria in 2018, Messi brought down a laser-guided aerial through ball from Ever Banega with his thigh, and the second touch from Messi was almost instantaneous before a lethal right-footed shot curled away from the goalkeeper's reach and into the net. The stadium erupted with Messi's first goal in that World Cup but one man sitting in the arena had a limelight just about as big as the Argentina number 10 on the pitch.
It was none other than Diego Armando Maradona, arms outstretched and apparently in a state of hysteria as he thanked the heavens in celebration of Messi's goal. As iconic as they come, those scenes will not be repeated in Qatar at this World Cup. His dance with a Nigerian fan during the game caught attention and he even needed medical attention in the frenzy of Argentina's win.
Even decades after retiring, Maradona had hung over Argentine football like a giant's dead body. They had failed to win the cherished World Cup since Maradona led them to it in 1986 with a 'hand of god' and two magical feet that could only be stopped with the most atrocious tackles. Maradona's title-winning campaign was symbolic of how one player can get a team going, however, his fall from grace in later years had similarly hogged the spotlight.
Maradona has a special place in the hearts of people in Bangladesh too. His exploits at that 1986 World Cup, and especially those two goals against England, further fuelled his lore in the minds and hearts of people, given it was the first World Cup seen in colour TV.
Maradona, for the majority of the 90's kids in the country, became the most household name. Colour posters strewn across the study table walls, glued in by family members who would stay up into the night during the 1994 World Cup and shout 'that's him, that's Maradona' to the young ones, no matter how sleepy the kids were, are testaments to Bangladesh's love for the Argentina number 10.
In that 1994 World Cup, Maradona had failed a drug test following a game against Nigeria and it culminated in the saddest day in Argentina football. Maradona claimed responsibility as Argentina eventually fell out of the World Cup, but the story had been that he was a victim of circumstances.
It was not just Argentines who were left weeping but similarly heartbroken were fans in Bangladesh in tandem with the rest of the world. Famous Uruguayan football writer Eduardo Galeano mentioned the love people had for Maradona, following his banishment from the 1994 World Cup, in his book, titled: Football in Sun and Shadow.
"There was stupefaction and scandal, a blast of moral condemnation that left the whole world deaf. But somehow a few voices of support for the fallen idol managed to squeak through, not only in his wounded and dumbfounded Argentina, but in places as far away as Bangladesh, where a sizable demonstration repudiating FIFA and demanding Maradona's return shook the streets," Galeano wrote.
In a way, a star like Maradona falling from grace had made him more human and closer to the hearts of the mass. Indeed, no other great footballer has come to be accepted in the same way Maradona had been. When he passed away in 2020, the tributes flowed and it still continues to do so.
At heart, he remained a pure entertainer till the end and his frailties were accepted just as his genius was. Even as he coached Argentina in the 2010 World Cup, Maradona faced criticism for his theatrics as the results did not match expectations but he continued to grab headlines even after that. When he showed up at Argentina team hotel before the World Cup 2014 final against Germany, he had reportedly already irritated several Argentina officials. Maradona, however, had his own way of viewing things.
Always the showman, not afraid of criticism. There will be no wild cheers, no theatrics from the great man at the Qatar World Cup.
Brazilian legend Pele, who had enjoyed an immense rivalry with Maradona over the years on who was the better player and had shared the best player of the century award with the Argentine in the year 2000, had written an emotional goodbye a month after Maradona's death.
"One day, in heaven, we will play together on the same team. And it will be the first time that I raise my fist in the air in triumph on the pitch without celebrating a goal. It will be because I can finally embrace you again," Pele had written on a social media post.
Maradona's passing away left a gaping void in the footballing world and his presence will be heavily missed in Qatar and the World Cups that follow.