In 2017, the two brightest stars in football history were united in Moscow at the draw for the following year's World Cup in Russia. Ignoring Vladimir Putin's attempt to photobomb the moment, Diego Maradona stooped to kiss a smiling Pele who held up a phone as he took a selfie of the occasion.
The two men may have occasionally sniped at each other in the debate over which was the greatest of all time, but it was a happy moment that provided a reminder of the shared glory the former winners brought to the World Cup and which the World Cup bestowed on them. With Pele in a wheelchair, it also provided a reminder of the mortality of even sport's most seemingly immortal stars.
Pele was the affable ambassador for a sponsor at a string of World Cups after he retired. Maradona, who didn't always do diplomacy, epitomised the passion of the fans at his last World Cup in 2018, dancing with an opposing fan and producing a double middle finger salute as Argentina scored a late winner against Nigeria in Saint Petersburg. For the first time since Pele won the first of three World Cups in 1958, the 22nd edition in Qatar will go ahead with neither great looming over it.
Maradona died in 2020 and the increasingly frail Pele has been absent in the buildup to Qatar. Yet fans watching coverage of the World Cup will surely see them, and not just because a luxury watchmaker which has Pele as a brand ambassador promises to preserve him in their online 'Metaverse Stadium'. Footage of their greatest moments are among the brightest threads in the tapestry of World Cup history.
As fans tune in, dreaming of watching their team triumph, they will be treated to replays of those highlights from the World Cup's colour-television era. These include Pele's third victory as part of the sparkling Brazil team that won in sun-drenched Mexico in 1970.
Then there are Maradona's two strikes – the Hand of God and the Goal of the Century – as Argentina beat England on the way to victory, again in Mexico, in 1986. Maradona is not the only recently-departed star who lives on, propelling their countries to victory in dazzling archive footage. --Footballing redemption-- Paolo Rossi, who scored six goals, including a hat-trick against Brazil and the opener as Italy beat West Germany 3-1 in the final to seal an entirely unexpected title in Spain in 1982, died in December 2020, two weeks after Maradona.
Gerd Mueller, who scored the last of his 68 international goals to give West Germany a 2-1 victory over the Netherlands in the 1974 final in Munich, died the following August. The twinkling feet of Maradona and Rossi were both sometimes made of clay. As the World Cup kicks off in one of the traditional capitals of pearl fishing, they offer reminders that oysters need grit to produce their treasure. Maradona's handball goal in 1986 remains a more celebrated moment than the dazzling dribble over half the length of the field a few minutes later.
The Argentine was unrepentant. He competed to win. Fans will demand no less from their teams. The conclusion of his World Cup story provides another reminder that even the greatest players are flawed. After scoring once and setting up two more as Argentina won their first two games at the 1994 World Cup, the seemingly rejuvenated Maradona was sent home after failing a test for ephedrine.
Rossi returned from suspension for his part in the Totonero match-fixing scandal just in time to be controversially recalled for the 1982 World Cup. There he showed that even players with dirty hands can pull on the golden boot. Rossi's World Cup story is one of footballing redemption, a theme that will appeal to all the stars in Qatar who have been banned, booed, doubted or suffered injuries that dashed a nation's hopes, such as Karim Benzema, Bukayo Saka, Lionel Messi or Neymar. They can hope to rewrite their histories as they chase Maradona, Mueller and Rossi and the other glorious ghosts of World Cups past.
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