There were Argentine banners being hung from rafters and tied around columns and fastened to walls. There were Argentine flags, six feet high, fluttering and flourishing above Doha’s streets. The vast majority of them bore the same instantly recognizable face: not Lionel Messi, but Diego Maradona.
It was the same with the songs that echoed around the city from lunchtime onward, as gaggles of Argentine fans encountered one another: songs about Diego, watching from the sky; songs about Diego, passing his mantle on to Messi; songs about Diego and how much he is missed.
For many fans, this World Cup is, of course, about Messi: his last chance to win the one trophy that has eluded him — other than the Carabao Cup — throughout his glittering career. At last, Argentina seems to have crafted a team that can get the best out of him, one that has not lost in 35 games coming into the tournament and one that has arrived in Qatar with a genuine belief that the tercera, the country’s third World Cup, is around the corner.
But judging by those Argentines who have arrived, for them this month is as much about honoring Maradona as it is about adoring Messi.
It is, after all, the first tournament since Maradona’s death two years ago this week, the first World Cup without the presence in some form of the man who defined it for Argentina: as an inspirational player, as a cautionary tale, as an impassioned coach, as the country’s most ardent cheerleader. The players want to win it for Messi. The fans’ songs, their banners and their flags make it clear that they are here, as much as anything, to celebrate Maradona.