Under the inky sky on Friday night, a wave of white and blue spilled onto the CONMEBOL fan zone in Central Doha’s Msheireb, wearing and waving Argentina’s most famous No.10 jersey. The name printed above the No.10 did not belong to its incumbent Lionel Messi but that of his luminous predecessor Diego Maradona, whose second death anniversary was both celebrated and mourned in Doha.
From his former teammates like Jorge Burruchaga, Ricardo Giusti, Sergio Batista, Claudio Borghi, Carlos Tapia and Jorge Valdano to thousands of Argentina fans, from the country and outside, poured into the fan zone to pay him teary tributes.
The fan zone, the size of a compact cricket stadium was so packed — the queue stretched to the Al Bidda metro station, a mile away, and the police had to barricade the road to Souq Waqif to control the crowd — that fans waited outside the arena. They carried their drums with the face of Maradona embossed on it, with large flags with the portrait of his face in place of the golden sun. Another flag re-imaged Michelangelo’s most-famous as well as parodied fresco on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel The Creation of Adam, in which Maradona, from the clouds reaches his index finger out to Messi, (the interpretation of the original is that God is instilling the spark of life from his own finger to that of Adam, and the Maradona-Messi symbolism can’t be missed). Besides Messi is the Copa America trophy.
The words Mandas en mi corazon (you are in my heart) is scrawled in the blurred background of the Argentina flag. It’s the most common hoarding you find in clusters with high Argentinian density. The day before his anniversary, most Argentines were busy latching the flag on the facade of their apartments. It’s long and rectangular, some metres long, and it requires collective effort. “We couldn’t find a ladder, and in the end we went to a hardware store and managed a step ladder,” says Valdez Vasquez from Cordoba.
The painting, he says, is the reproduction of a mural drawn by Argentina’s most famous artist Santiago Barbeito on the ceiling of an indoor football court in Buenos Aires. “Every fan has brought one of the flags to Doha, and we will wave it during every match. If Argentina win the World Cup we will drape the flag over the trophy,” he adds.
Valdez and his friends could enter the fan zone, but they hung around in the locality, singing songs for Maradona, sharing I-have-talked-to-him anecdotes, chanting Viva Diego to the background music from bombo criolo, a percussion instrument.
“We don’t need to show our love for Diego by going to the fan zone, he is forever in our heart, but we went there just to get a community feeling, for togetherness. We laughed and wept. Our entire county did,” he says.
Perhaps, the world too shed tears for arguably the greatest ever footballer ever, and inarguably the most colourful one.
There were Diegos everywhere in the city; in the busy central squares of Qatar and in the faraway clusters too. Miniature flags with his face fluttered from cars. He stared from t-shirts and walls; candles were lit in the evening beside his sanctuaries. In a hangar near the Hamad International Airport, a private jet was painted with his portrait and Maradona FanFest too was organised. Thousands flocked to Qatar Olympic and Sports Museum where Maradona’s jersey when he scored the famous Hand of God goal is displayed.
“Last year, the entire city gathered at the centre square in our city to pay tributes. This evening I felt I was somewhere in Argentina,” he says.
The next day, they were encountering Mexico in a must-win game. But no one discussed the game; no one talked of Messi. “It was just for Diego, and among the fans were non-Argentinians too,” says Valdez’s friend Thiago.
Inside the fan zone, some of Maradona’s teammates 1986 World Cup winning side paid touching tributes to him. The ever-eloquent Valdano said: “Like the great masters of painting, he made sketches until completing his most wonderful work against England.”
Burrucahaga, one of Maradona’s best friends, said: “Diego continues to be there and will be there until the end of our lives. Giusti said he cannot imagine that he is not with them physically, but “he is always present with us, where there is football, there is Maradona”.
FIFA president Giovanni Infantino promised a Maradona day. “We not only need to pay tribute but also to celebrate Diego. I would like that from now on, at every World Cup we would take one day to celebrate Diego Armando Maradona, because he made so many people fall in love with our sport, football,” he said.
For the Maradona tragic, the night never ended. As did the memories of Maradona, the man they call “Diego”. Even the inky sky seemed painted blue and white.