Doha, Qatar – For George Matus, a 55-year-old Argentina fan from Buenos Aires, Diego Maradona is a god who now sits in the heavens above, and Lionel Messi is his messiah on the football pitch.
It has been 36 years since Argentina last won the football World Cup, but the magic of 1986 lives on in the memories of Matus and his compatriots.
“When I think about that day in Mexico City, I get goosebumps, and my heart starts beating in my mouth,” Matus told Al Jazeera from the Argentine fan village in Qatar.
As Argentina take on France in the final on Sunday, two years on from Maradona’s death, fans expect their icon to be the guiding light from up above.
“When Maradona scored against England in the quarterfinal in 1986, he called it the hand of God, and now, he is the hand of God guiding Argentina all the way to glory,” Sebas, a Germany-based Argentina fan said while referring to Maradona’s famous first goal in the match against England.
That game was played four years after the Falklands War between Argentina and Britain. Maradona’s second goal in that match is widely considered one of the greatest ever: He took possession of the ball in Argentina’s half, then dribbled past a series of England players and their goalkeeper to score, leaving opposition players on their knees or with hands on hips.
Many years later, Maradona termed the victory a “revenge” for the war in his autobiography, I am The Diego.
Matus, who attended the 1986 World Cup as a 19-year-old, said Maradona did more than just win a trophy for the country. “I saw him weave his magic on the pitch, but his real power was in uniting the nation after the [Falklands] war,” Matus said with a quivering voice.
According to Matus, Maradona was a leader of the entire nation and united all Argentinians after years of economic struggle, military dictatorship and societal discord.
“He invoked a sense of pride in being Argentinian that we had forgotten, and he is the reason this blue and white shirt became so popular,” Matus said while pointing to a sea of Argentine shirts in the crowd in front of him.
For most fans who have travelled to Qatar, the love and reverence for Maradona have been passed on from the previous generations.
Mauro, who has travelled from Cordoba in central Argentina, has been wearing a worn-out Maradona shirt to every match in Qatar. “My father bought it during the 1986 World Cup and passed it on to me,” he said. “Along with the shirt, my father passed on his love for Diego and taught me that Maradona fought for all the unfortunate people in the world.”
Every time fans make their way to an Argentina match, Maradona’s name is on their lips when they sing their football anthems, his face is emblazoned on their banners, and his number is printed on their shirts.
“He’s in our hearts, our soul, our blood,” Matus said while patting his chest, and added: “Maradona is Argentina, and Argentina is Maradona.”