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'Gracias Diego': Maradona's Fans Mourn Legendary Player's Death

A man cries as he waits in a line outside the presidential palace to pay his final respects to Diego Maradona, in Buenos Aires on Thursday.
A man cries as he waits in a line outside the presidential palace to pay his final respects to Diego Maradona, in Buenos Aires on Thursday.

With tears, songs and prayers, a multitude of Argentines flooded into the heart of Buenos Aires to pay their final respects to Diego Maradona, one of the world's greatest soccer players.

Thousands of fans lined up from the early hours on Thursday to file past Maradona's wooden casket as he lay in the Casa Rosada, the presidential palace, beneath his nation's sky-blue-and-white flag and his signature No. 10 shirt.

The facade of the pink-tinged palace was decorated with a huge black ribbon in honor of the audaciously skillful player who rose from poverty to stardom at a young age, and became a national hero by leading Argentina to World Cup victory in 1986.

Mourners embrace as they wait to see Diego Maradona lying in state outside the presidential palace in Buenos Aires on  Thursday.
Rodrigo Abd / AP
Mourners embrace as they wait to see Diego Maradona lying in state outside the presidential palace in Buenos Aires on Thursday.

Occasional clashes with police broke out as some of the crowd grew frustrated with waiting and broke through the security barriers.

As the morning grew longer, a pile of red roses, banners, scarves and shirts formed alongside Maradona's coffin, thrown there by mourners. Some grieving fans carried banners simply saying "Gracias Diego."

"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, a 22-year-old supporter with a Maradona tattoo, told Reuters.

Police block soccer fans waiting to see Diego Maradona lying in state in Buenos Aires on Thursday.
Marcos Brindicci / AP
Police block soccer fans waiting to see Diego Maradona lying in state in Buenos Aires on Thursday.

Maradona, 60, died of a heart attack on Wednesday at his home on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, where he was recovering from recent brain surgery. After his playing career ended, his life was marred by much-publicized battles with cocaine, alcohol and ill health.

Yet the tributes pouring in from supporters, sports celebrities and politicians around the world have focused on his sporting triumphs, including glittering stints at Barcelona and Napoli. His illicit "Hand of God" goal in the World Cup against England in 1986, and breathtaking solo goal four minutes later, made soccer history.

Some of the crowd outside the palace reportedly spent the night mourning their hero on the capital's streets. After news of Maradona's death was announced, some fans went to lay flowers and candles at his childhood home. Others gathered at the stadium of Boca Juniors, one of Maradona's teams, and also at the Argentinos Juniors' stadium, where he started his career.

Fans line up to pay respects to Diego Maradona at the presidential palace in Buenos Aires on Thursday.
Natacha Pisarenko / AP
Fans line up to pay respects to Diego Maradona at the presidential palace in Buenos Aires on Thursday.

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic — which has claimed more than 37,700 Argentine lives — a large throng of supporters also congregated at Buenos Aires' landmark Obelisk monument to sing songs, flourish flags and chant.

Maradona's burial is expected to be held on Thursday evening at the Bella Vista cemetery on the outskirts of Buenos Aires where his parents are also buried. Argentina's President Alberto Fernández has declared three days of national mourning, saying Maradona had made Argentines "intensely happy" and describing him as "the greatest of them all."

Although that claim is disputed by many in Argentina's neighboring Brazil — a fierce soccer rival, where Pelé is widely seen as the world's best-ever player — the Brazilian media marked Maradona's passing with numerous pieces extolling his exceptional talents.

"Farewell, Brother," said Thursday's front-page headline in the Rio de Janeiro tabloid O Dia.

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