Argentina’s Diego Maradona, one of the world’s greatest ever soccer players, was set to be laid to rest on Thursday amid a global outpouring of grief from the streets of Buenos Aires to Naples in Italy.
The death of Maradona at the age of 60 on Wednesday, after a heart attack, has sparked both mourning and celebrations of a true sporting star, who was a genius on the soccer field but lived a life marred by struggles with addiction.
The World Cup winner was taken by hearse late Thursday afternoon to the Bella Vista cemetery on the outskirts of Buenos Aires – where his parents are also interred – for an small private ceremony of his family and close friends.
The burial follows a day of high emotion that saw clashes between police and fans near the presidential palace in central Buenos Aires where Maradona lay in state in a closed casket for people to say their final farewells.
Thousands of people had surrounded the pink-hued Casa Rosada and there was a febrile atmosphere more akin to a rowdy soccer game than a formal wake, with fans clambering up the palace gates to get as close as possible to their hero.
The tensions eased after Maradona’s body was transferred by hearse to the cemetery, surrounded by a huge procession of police and others on motorbikes. Thousands of Argentines lined the roads as it passed on the hour-long journey to Bella Vista.
In Italy, crowds tied hundreds of blue-and-white scarfs to the railings outside his former club Napoli, while in France, sports paper L’Equipe’s front page blared out: “God is dead.”
In Argentina, three days of national mourning were called for the player who led the country to a 1986 World Cup win and is revered with cult-like status. Tens of thousands took to the streets, not all wearing masks, despite fears over the COVID-19 pandemic. Some left flowers and messages at his childhood home.
“Maradona for me is the greatest thing that happened to me in life. I love him as much as my father and it’s like my old man died,” Cristian Montelli, 22, a supporter of the star’s former club Boca Juniors said with tears in his eyes after he had filed past the coffin.
“If I die young, hopefully upstairs I can play ball and watch a Boca game with him,” added Montelli, who had a tattoo of Maradona’s face on his leg.
During the day, Maradona’s body lay in state in a wooden coffin at the Casa Rosada presidential palace on the central Plaza de Mayo. It was covered with the blue-and-white national flag and an Argentina soccer jersey with the number 10 that had been part of his nickname “D10S” – a play on “dios,” the Spanish word for God.
Starting at dawn on Thursday, thousands of fans had formed a snaking line estimated at more than 1.6 kilometres long through the streets of Buenos Aires near the plaza, after a night of mourning and reminiscing.
Fans who got inside the palace – many missed out – threw soccer shirts, flowers and other items toward the casket.
“He was someone who touched the sky with his hands but never took his feet off the ground,” Argentine President Alberto Fernandez said. He visited the casket on Thursday.
As authorities started to close down access to the central square on Thursday afternoon, scuffles broke out, with police using rubber bullets and water cannon to disperse the unruly crowds.
In Naples, meanwhile, fans laid out flowers, children’s pictures, candles and even a bottle of wine in a rapidly expanding, makeshift shrine.
Major athletes and world leaders, including Argentina-born Pope Francis, have paid their own tributes.
Newspapers around the world ran his picture on front covers and made a play on his nickname to say “Adios.”
“Diego belongs to the people, Diego belongs to Argentina, Diego belongs to the country,” said Dario Lozano, waiting in line to view the casket.
Beloved in his homeland after leading Argentina to World Cup glory in 1986 and adored in Italy for taking Napoli to two Serie A titles, Maradona was a uniquely gifted player who rose from the tough streets of Buenos Aires to reach the pinnacle of his sport.
The 1986 World Cup included a quarter-final game against England where Maradona scored two of the tournament’s best-known goals ever: an illicit “Hand of God” goal and one that followed an incredible swerving, dribble.
Maradona also battled various health problems over the years as a result of his addictions. Earlier this month, he was hospitalized for symptoms including anemia and dehydration and underwent emergency surgery for a subdural hematoma, a blood clot in the brain.
On Thursday, Maradona’s lawyer, Matias Morla, said he would ask for a full investigation into the circumstances of the death and criticized what he said was a slow response by emergency services.
In Italy, Massimo Vignati, owner of a Maradona museum in Naples, said the player had become almost like family.
“My mother was the Neapolitan mother of Maradona. He was our twelfth brother,” he said surrounded by memorabilia of the player. “We must remember him with his smile as always. He made his last dribble and left us suddenly.”