'Diego will always be with us' as Argentina prepare for first World Cup since Maradona death

Photo by Jean-Yves Ruszniewski/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

Argentina head to their first World Cup since Diego Maradona's death but the Albiceleste great will be there in spirit.

That was the message from Maradona's former agent Guillermo Coppola at the opening of CONMEBOL's 'Tree of Dreams' in Doha to celebrate South America's rich football heritage.

Lionel Scaloni's side are among the pre-tournament favourites in Qatar ahead of Tuesday's Group C opener against Saudi Arabia, searching for a first World Cup crown since a Maradona-inspired triumph in 1986.

There has not been a South American winner of FIFA's top tournament since Brazil in 2002, but Coppola hopes that will change for Argentina in their first outing since Maradona passed in November 2020.

"This is going to be the first World Cup that [Maradona] is not physically with us," said the 74-year-old. "But Diego will always be with us.

"The most precious good for Diego was the football. It wasn't life, which is the most precious good that human beings have.

"It wasn't freedom – to be able to decide and to do – which is the second one, the freedom for him was the ball.

"Where a ball rolls there is Diego, do not forget this, when you see a ball rolling say, there is Diego."

Argentina ended a 28-year wait for major silverware by beating Brazil in the 2021 Copa America final.

That makes this the first World Cup they enter as champions of South America since USA 94 and former Argentina captain Javier Zanetti expects his country to come out fighting as a unified group.

Speaking alongside World Cup winners Oscar Ruggeri and Mario Alberto Kempes, Zanetti added: "It means a lot to have a united, consolidated, solid group.

"I trust that Argentina is a group that came to Qatar knowing well what they want."

While Zanetti, now Inter vice-president, acknowledged the ill-timing of the November World Cup, he has little doubt Argentina will hit the ground running.

"We cannot know about the physical condition because this World Cup is atypical," the 49-year-old continued.

"It is being played in November and many consecutive games were played recently, so there is a lot of fatigue.

"But in general, I trust that players and national teams will arrive in good condition."