BUENOS AIRES/NAPLES, Italy – Argentines lined up for hours on Thursday to say goodbye to soccer great Diego Maradona and walk past his casket lying in state at the Casa Rosada presidential palace, draped in the national flag and his famous no. 10 shirt.
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”.
Fans across the world mourned Maradona, who lived a life marred by struggles with addiction and died aged 60 following a heart attack at home on Wednesday.
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, despite fears over the COVID-19 pandemic, leaving flowers and messages at his childhood home.
The star’s family is planning to hold the burial on Thursday evening at the Bella Vista cemetery on the outskirts of Buenos Aires where his parents are also interred, a government source said. A source at the cemetery confirmed that the burial had been scheduled for 6pm local time, but said it could also be delayed to Friday morning.
Starting at dawn, thousands of fans formed a snaking line estimated at over a mile (1.61 km) long through the streets of Buenos Aires near the central Plaza de Mayo after a night of mourning and reminiscing. Some scuffles broke out as some tried to get inside the palace to see their hero’s casket.
“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 fan of the star’s former club Boca Juniors said with tears in his eyes.
“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.
In Naples, fans laid out flowers, children’s pictures, candles and even a bottle of wine in a rapidly expanding, makeshift shrine.
Maradona’s body lay in state in a wooden coffin 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.
Fans held back by a barrier threw soccer shirts, flowers and other items towards the casket as they tried to get near the player, who was a hero in Argentina and beyond both on and off the pitch despite his well-documented flaws.
“He was someone who touched the sky with his hands but never took his feet off the ground,” President Alberto Fernandez said. He visited the casket on Thursday.
Major athletes and world leaders, including Argentina-born Pope Francis, have paid their own tributes.
“DIEGO BELONGS TO THE PEOPLE”
Newspapers around the world ran his picture on front covers and made a play on his nickname to say “Adios” – goodbye.
“Diego belongs to the people, Diego belongs to Argentina, Diego belongs to the country,” said Dario Lozano, waiting in line to view the casket.
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 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, Matías 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 told Reuters surrounded my memorabilia of the player. “We must remember him with his smile as always. He made his last dribble and left us suddenly.”