BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) — In the middle of the concrete jungle that is Argentina’s bustling capital, a huge mural has emerged of Diego Maradona wearing a national team jersey, his right hand in a fist and a defiant expression on his face.
The massive artwork, 148 feet high and 131 feet wide (45 meters by 40 meters) and painted on the side of a 14-story building in Buenos Aires, is one of several tributes that Argentines have dedicated to their soccer “God” shortly before the start of this year’s World Cup in Qatar, the first since Maradona’s death on Nov. 25, 2020.
Maradona’s feats and defeats as a player on the national team are being remembered, from the famous and infamous goals against England before the county won the 1986 World Cup to the failed final against West Germany four years later, and the doping test that got him expelled from the following World Cup in 1994.
Well-known street artist Martín Ron was behind the world’s largest mural, inspired by a photograph of the then-Argentina captain that captures his expression shortly before he sang the national anthem at the 1990 World Cup final against West Germany, which Argentina lost 1-0.
“It’s a photo of Diego when he was close to winning the country’s third star,” Ron told The Associated Press during a break from the work he began a month ago.
Argentina also won the World Cup in 1978, but Maradona didn’t make the team for that tournament.
“This photo summarizes everything Diego was,” Ron said. “Beyond the player, he was the guts, the motor, the heart.”
To one side of Maradona’s face, Ron painted a constellation of stars in the shape of a kite, a reference to his nickname “cosmic kite,” which is what one well-known radio commentator called the soccer star following his second goal against England in 1986.
“His absence will be felt, Diego was always a star. In all the World Cups he did his own thing, inside and outside the field,” Ron said. “And in Qatar, he will sadly not be there.”
Ron’s mural was officially unveiled on Sunday to coincide with the soccer great’s birthday.
Days earlier, the Argentine soccer association received the original jersey that Maradona wore in the 1986 World Cup. It was a gift from Germany great Lothar Matthäus, who exchanged jerseys with Maradona after the final that Argentina won 3-2 at the Azteca Stadium in Mexico City.
“One of the happiest moments with him was when (Brazilian referee) Arppi Filho blew the whistle during the final in Mexico. I just happened to be very close to Diego, I was lucky that he hugged me before anybody else,” former player Ricardo Giusti recalled during a recent event alongside other former World Cup champions outside Buenos Aires.
“We enjoyed it so much, everybody enjoyed Diego. That’s what’s sad. It makes us feel a lot of sadness, sorrow and disillusion,” the former midfielder said.
Matthäus’ donation was a sort of reparation for Argentina after it failed to win an auction for the jersey Maradona wore in the match against England in the quarterfinals of that World Cup tournament. An unknown bidder from outside the country bought the iconic item at auction for a record $9 million in May.
In 1994, Maradona played his last World Cup match against Nigeria in the group stage. He was suspended for 15 months following the 2-1 victory after a positive doping test.
As Argentina coach, Maradona led the national team to the quarterfinals at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, but the team lost to Germany 4-0.
One of the most disturbing images came eight years later at the 2018 World Cup in Russia when an overweight and somewhat disoriented Maradona collapsed at the stadium in St. Petersburg following a 2-1 victory over Nigeria.
Maradona died at the age of 60 while he was under hospital care in his home following brain surgery. Judicial authorities continue to investigate if medical negligence was involved.
“He is missed, Diego’s image has been, and is, very strong,” said Carlos Tapia, another member of the 1986 championship team. “He was our reference, captain, everything. He was always close to each one of us. Let’s hope he can be a guiding light from above in Qatar.”
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This story has been corrected to show that Argentina beat West Germany 3-2 in the 1986 World Cup final, not 2-1.