BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) – Argentines lined up in the streets of Buenos Aires on Thursday to say goodbye to soccer great Diego Maradona, whose casket lay in state at the Casa Rosada presidential palace draped in an Argentine flag and his famous no. 10 shirt.
Maradona, whose life was marred by struggles with addiction, died aged 60 following a heart attack at home on Wednesday. Three days of national mourning were called for the player who led Argentina to a 1986 World Cup win and is revered with cult-like status.
The star’s family is hoping 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 cemetery source confirmed that the burial had been scheduled for 6pm local time, but said it could also be delayed to Friday morning.
Early on Thursday, thousands of fans had already formed a snaking line through the streets 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.
Maradona’s body lay 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 on Wednesday.
Major athletes and world leaders, including Argentina-born Pope Francis, paid tribute to Maradona. Fans from Naples to India mourned his passing. In Spain, the Diario AS front-page headline read “D10S has died.”
Tens of thousands of Argentines have taken to the streets to mourn him, despite fears over the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, leaving flowers and messages at his childhood home and outside Boca Juniors’ stadium.
“Diego belongs to the people, Diego belongs to Argentina, Diego belongs to the country,” said Dario Lozano, waiting in line to view the casket.
Diego, Pelusa, or simply God, as Maradona was known, had a long career that included leading the South American nation to World Cup glory in 1986. Pelusa, which means fluff in Spanish, referred to Maradona’s prominent mane of hair at the height of his playing days.
The 1986 tournament included a quarter-final game against England where Maradona scored two of the best-known World Cup 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 soccer star’s death, and criticized what he said was a slow response by emergency services.
Maradona fan Mauro Gimenez, wearing a yellow Boca Juniors shirt, said it was hard to explain the feeling that his playing created. “I think everyone today felt like something had died, your childhood died, your mother died, your father died,” he said. “This is what it feels like.”