Buenos Aires (AFP) – Tens of thousands of Argentines on Thursday queued to say a final farewell to Diego Maradona, in an outpouring of love for their national hero before the funeral of one of the greatest footballers of all time.
Many of the mourners were in tears, and some wore the World Cup winner’s number 10 Argentina jersey as they gathered at the Casa Rosada presidential palace in Buenos Aires to see his coffin.
Maradona will be buried later Thursday at the Jardin de Paz cemetery on the outskirts of the Argentine capital, where his parents were also laid to rest, his spokesman Sebastian Sanchi told AFP.
“He was the best in the world, we’re going to miss him and his death broke our souls,” said Diego Armando Cabral, a 29-year-old bricklayer in Buenos Aires who was named after the footballer.
Tributes poured in from around the world following the World Cup winner’s death on Wednesday at the age of 60.
His career and life was sometimes tainted by a loose interpretation of the rules of the game and a crippling addiction to cocaine and alcohol.
The outrageously skilful Maradona, widely remembered for his “Hand of God” goal against England in the 1986 World Cup quarter-finals, died of a heart attack while recovering from brain surgery.
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.”
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”.
– ‘Hand of God’ –
Maradona, born into poverty in Lanus, just south of Buenos Aires, on October 30, 1960, also played for Argentine clubs Argentinos Juniors and Boca Juniors and Spanish giants Barcelona before becoming a hero in the working-class southern Italian city of Naples.
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, unseen by the referee. Maradona memorably describing the goal as “a little with the head of Maradona and a little with the hand of God”.
It is the goal for which he is best remembered in England, and a still bitter Shilton told the Daily Mail: “It seems he had greatness in him but sadly no sportsmanship.”
Nevertheless, just minutes after that goal the diminutive Maradona weaved through six English defenders from the halfway line to score an unforgettable solo second which has been 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.
His career was crowned by his performances at that World Cup, when he captained Argentina to glory.
He scored twice in the semi-final against Belgium and set up the 86th-minute winner in the final against West Germany.
Maradona also inspired Argentina to the 1990 final only for West Germany to take their revenge. At the 1994 World Cup he failed a doping test and was sent home from the United States 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 infamous handball goal: “After a blessed but troubled life, hopefully he’ll finally find some comfort in the hands of God. #RipDiego.”
Maradona’s lifestyle took a heavy toll on his health. He was admitted to hospital three times in the last 20 years for serious health issues.
– ‘Ciao Diego’ –
His extraordinary talent was evident from a young age and after starring for Boca Juniors he was transferred to Barcelona. After a turbulent time in Spain, a then-world record transfer to Naples came to define his club career.
Maradona enchanted 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.
In Naples, heartbroken fans gathered at the Stadio San Paolo stadium to lay candles, scarves and shirts, creating a makeshift shrine to their hero.
“He was our Sunday warrior,” Fernando Carfora, 46, said. “Maradona didn’t play with his feet, he played with his head. Nobody scored Maradona’s goals.”
Maradona’s playing career went into swift decline after leaving Napoli under a cloud in 1991 following another failed drugs test.
As a coach he led Argentina to the 2010 World Cup before spells with clubs in the United Arab Emirates, Mexico and his home country — latterly at Gimnasia y Esgrima La Plata — but he could never hit 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.
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