Thousands of Argentines filed past Diego Maradona’s coffin in Buenos Aires on Thursday after the country and the world of football was plunged into mourning by his death at the age of 60.
Mourners, many in tears, and many wearing the World Cup winner’s number 10 Argentina jersey, gathered at the Casa Rosada presidential palace where the national hero’s coffin was draped in the sky blue and white Argentine flag.
Many more will pay homage to one of the all-time sporting greats before his burial on the outskirts of Buenos Aires later on Thursday.
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Maradona will be laid to rest in the Jardin de Paz cemetery, where his parents were also buried, his spokesman Sebastian Sanchi told AFP.
Tributes poured in from around the world as supporters, players and government leaders marked the passing of a sporting genius whose career and life was sometimes tainted by a loose interpretation of the rules of the game and a crippling addiction to cocaine.
The outrageously skilful Maradona, widely remembered for his “Hand of God” goal against England in the 1986 World Cup quarter-finals, died Wednesday of a heart attack while recovering from brain surgery, a member of his entourage told AFP.
Family members were summoned to Maradona’s home north of the Argentine capital before his death was announced.
Lionel Messi, Argentina’s modern-day superstar, led the tributes as he said: “He has left us but he will never leave us because Diego is eternal.”
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Brazilian legend Pele, 80, constantly compared with Maradona in the debate over football’s greatest player, said he hoped they would one day “play together in the sky”.
Despite a wave of coronavirus cases in Argentina, fans gathered at landmarks including Buenos Aires’ Obelisk monument and Argentinos Juniors’ Diego Armando Maradona Stadium, where he started his career.
– ‘Hand of God’ –
Maradona, born in Lanus, just south of Buenos Aires, on October 30, 1960, also played for Boca Juniors and Barcelona before becoming a hero in the working-class southern Italian city of Naples in a career marked by wild highs and lows.
In his most infamous match, he leapt and used his fist to score past England goalkeeper Peter Shilton in the 1986 World Cup quarter-finals in Mexico City, memorably describing the goal as “a little with the head of Maradona and a little with the hand of God”.
Minutes later he weaved through six English defenders from the halfway line to score an unforgettable solo second which was later honoured as FIFA’s “Goal of the century”.
The two contrasting goals perfectly encapsulated the mixture of brilliant skill and often outlandish behaviour that ran through Maradona’s life.
Maradona’s career was crowned by his performances at that World Cup, when he captained Argentina to glory.
After dismissing England he scored twice in the semi-final against Belgium and set up the 86th-minute winner in the final against West Germany.
It was to prove the highlight for Maradona, who inspired Argentina to the 1990 final only for West Germany to take their revenge. In 1994 he was in physical decline and, following an eye-bulging goal celebration direct to the TV cameras after scoring against Greece, failed a drugs test and was sent home in disgrace.
Gary Lineker, who was in the beaten England team in 1986, said Maradona was “arguably the greatest of all time”, adding in a reference to the controversial goal: “After a blessed but troubled life, hopefully he’ll finally find some comfort in the hands of God. #RipDiego.”
Excesses with drugs and alcohol had long taken their toll on Maradona’s health. He was admitted to hospital three times in the last 20 years for serious health issues due to his addictions.
– ‘Ciao Diego’ –
Maradona grew up in poverty, but his extraordinary talent was clear from a young age at Argentinos Juniors and Boca.
He moved to Barcelona but was singled out for rough treatment by opposing defenders and soon fell out of love with the Spanish club.
It was in Naples where Maradona would enchant an entire city by leading the then unfashionable Napoli to their only two Italian league titles in 1987 and 1990, befriending a mafia family along the way.
“Always in our hearts. Ciao Diego,” Napoli tweeted, while the club’s president and the city’s mayor called for the Stadio San Paolo to be renamed after Maradona.
In recent years, Maradona, reduced to hobbling by the ravages of his career and lifestyle, had coached in the United Arab Emirates, Mexico and Argentina without ever hitting the heights of his playing days.
Maradona married his long-time girlfriend Claudia Villafane in 1984. They had two daughters, Dalma and Gianinna, but the relationship was punctuated by Maradona’s extra-marital affairs and they divorced in 2004.
He also had a son, Diego Junior, born in Naples in 1986, although he only acknowledged paternity in 2004.
In 2000, FIFA ran an online Player of the Century poll. Maradona gained 54 percent of the vote and Pele was second with 18 percent. FIFA declared them joint winners.