The death of Diego Maradona brought Argentina to an almost complete standstill on Thursday as the nation turned its gaze to the Casa Rosada presidential palace where thousands of people queued up to file, slowly, reverently and one-by-one, past the iconic footballer’s coffin.
Tears and sobbing could be heard from the mourners of all ages and classes who had gathered from the early morning to pay their respects to Maradona as his body lay in state. Among the lamentations, football chants rang out, chief among them: “¡Olé, olé, olé, olé, Die-go! Die-go!”
Maradona’s body was held in a wooden coffin draped with the blue-and-white national flag and an Argentina strip with the No 10 that had been part of his nickname “D10S” – a play on dios, the Spanish word for “god”. Fans threw flowers, football shirts and rosaries on to the coffin while, outside, health workers distributed water among the huge crowds standing under a punishing southern springtime sun as they waited their turn to enter.
Argentina’s president, Alberto Fernández, cleared his schedule after declaring three days of national mourning on Wednesday, and accompanied the Maradona family at the Casa Rosada.
“He was someone who touched the sky with his hands but never took his feet off the ground,” Fernández said following Maradona’s death, reflecting the player’s gift for captivating hearts at home and abroad.
A tribute to Diego Maradona
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The gigantic line to enter the palace began forming outside the presidential palace on Wednesday night and stretched the length of 20 blocks by midday, raising doubts as to whether the hero’s farewell would be wrapped by the end of the afternoon. Another of Argentina’s favourite sons, Pope Francis, sent a special gift to the Maradona family – a blessed papal rosary that was hand-delivered to Maradona’s daughter Giannina at the intimate family wake in the early hours of Thursday morning before the presidential palace was opened to the public.
Maradona’s former wife, Claudia Villafañe and her daughters with Maradona, Dalma and Giannina were present at the small wake, as were his children from other relationships, Jana and Dieguito Maradona.
Major athletes and world leaders, including Pope Francis, paid tribute. Fans from Naples to India mourned his passing. In Spain’s Diario AS, the front-page headline read simply: “D10S has died”.
Among those who turned up to the Casa Rosada on Thursday was Cristián Montelli, a 22-year-old Boca Juniors supporter with Maradona’s face tattooed on his leg. “I love him as much as my father and it’s like my old man died,” said Montelli. “If I die young, hopefully upstairs I can play ball and watch a Boca game with him.”
Another fan and fellow Boca fan, Mauro Giménez, expressed a similar sense of bereavement: “I think everyone today felt like something had died, your childhood died, your mother died, your father died, this is what it feels like.” Words, he added, could not explain what the sight of Maradona on the pitch had meant to his fans: “You had to be a soccer player, have passion and then you would know what Diego was – happiness, sadness, rebellion.”
Reuters contributed to this report