Thousands line up to bid farewell to Diego Maradona at Argentine presidential mansion

Soccer superstar Diego Maradona was buried Thursday in a private ceremony attended by only two dozen people — a stark contrast to earlier in the day when tens of thousands of weeping fans filed past his coffin for hours in an observance that mixed head-of-state-like honors with the chaos of a rowdy stadium.

Only family members and close friends were permitted at Jardín Bella Vista cemetery for the final religious ceremony and burial of Maradona next to the graves of his parents, Dalma and Diego.

Fans waving Argentine flags had gathered along roads as Maradona’s funeral car drove by under heavy security. Many tried to touch the vehicle whenever it was stopped by traffic.

The earlier viewing at the Argentine presidential mansion was halted shortly before 6 p.m., 12 hours after it started, as Maradona’s family wished and the body of the Argentine icon was taken away for burial, frustrating many who were waiting to pay their respects and causing new tensions at the gates of the cemetery.

Fans, some draped in the national flag, sang soccer anthems as they formed a line that stretched more than 20 blocks from the Plaza de Mayo, where Argentines gathered to celebrate the Maradona-led triumph in the 1986 World Cup.

But with the time for viewing the coffin at the presidential palace drawing short, police moved to cut off the back end of the crowd, enraging fans who hurled rocks and other objects at officers, who responded with rubber bullets.

The crowd overwhelmed organizers and the violence resulted in injuries and arrests, which led Maradona’s family to end the public visitation. The casket was placed in a car that carried the former footballer’s name on a paperboard by the window.

Desperate to say goodbye, Maradona’s fans climbed on the fences of the presidential mansion as if they were in a soccer stadium, while firefighters worked to clear the ground.

“Diego is not dead, Diego lives in the people,” people chanted as the coffin was taken to a cemetery outside Buenos Aires. The motorcade, accompanied by police, was followed on a local highway by dozens of honking cars and motorcycles.

Hundreds of fans blocked entry to the cemetery before the arrival of Maradona’s casket, dancing and chanting as police moved in to open a way. The crowd continued making noise after the final ceremony began.

Maradona died Wednesday of a heart attack in a house outside Buenos Aires where he had been recovering from a brain operation Nov. 3.

While the viewing bore the hallmarks of a state funeral, with Maradona’s casket laid out in the presidential palace, the atmosphere often was that of a soccer stadium — chanting, singing, pushing and the occasional whiff of alcohol.

Aerial view of the burial of late Argentine football legend Diego Armando Maradona at the Jardin Bella Vista cemetery, in Buenos Aires province, on Nov. 26, 2020. (Emiliano Lasalvia / AFP / Getty Images)Fans on the side of the highway cheer for the hearse carrying the body of Diego Maradona that transports him through 25 de Mayo Highway to Jardín de Bella Vista before the burial ceremony on Nov. 26, 2020. (Tomas Cuesta / Getty Images)A mourner, sporting a tattoo of Diego Maradona on his forearm, waits in line to pay his final respects to the Argentine soccer great in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on Nov. 26, 2020. (Rodrigo Abd / Associated Press)Soccer fans waiting to see Diego Maradona lying in state clash with police outside the presidential palace in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on Nov. 26, 2020. (Rodrigo Abd / Associated Press)Mourners embrace as they wait to see Diego Maradona lying in state outside the presidential palace in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on Nov. 26, 2020. (Rodrigo Abd / Associated Press)The hearse carrying the casket of Diego Maradona leaves the government house in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on Nov. 26, 2020. (Mario De Fina / Associated Press)Soccer fans line up to see the casket with the body of Diego Maradona at the presidential palace in Buenos Aires on Nov. 26, 2020. (Natacha Pisarenko / Associated Press)In this handout photo released by Argentina’s Presidency, President Alberto Fernandez touches the coffin that contain the remains of Diego Maradona, while first lady Fabiola Yañez places a bouquet of roses on the casket adorned with his team jerseys, as they pay their final respects to Maradona, inside the presidential palace in Buenos Aires on Nov. 26, 2020. (Argentina’s Presidency via Associated Press)A man cries as he waits in a line outside the presidential palace in Buenos Aires to pay his final respects to Diego Maradona on Nov. 26, 2020. (Rodrigo Abd / Associated Press)Mourning fans climb the fence of the presidential palace to get a glimpse of the casket carrying Diego Maradona’s body in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on Nov. 26, 2020. (Marcos Brindicci / Associated Press)

Fans wept and blew kisses as they passed the wooden coffin, some striking their chests with closed fists and shouting, “Let’s go, Diego.”

It was draped with the Argentine flag and shirts bearing his famed No. 10 from the national team and the Boca Juniors club, with other jerseys tossed around it by passing admirers.

Open visitation began at 6:15 a.m. after a few hours of privacy for family and close friends. The first to bid farewell were his daughters and close family members. His former wife, Claudia Villafañe, came with Maradona’s daughters Dalma and Gianinna. Later came Verónica Ojeda, also an ex-wife, with their son, Dieguito Fernando.

Jana Maradona, who the player recognized as his daughter only a few years ago, also attended.

Then came former teammates of the 1986 World Cup-winning squad, including Oscar Ruggeri. Other Argentine footballers, such as Boca Juniors’ Carlos Tévez, showed up, too.

Early in the morning some fans grew impatient as police tried to maintain order, and began throwing bottles and pieces of metal fencing at officers outside the presidential offices in the heart of Buenos Aires. Police at one point used tear gas to try to control them.

Interior Minister Wado de Pedro said he was upset over what he called the “craziness” of police actions against fans. “This popular tribute cannot end in repression and running of those that came to say goodbye to Maradona,” he said.

President Alberto Fernández appeared at midday and placed on the casket a jersey from the Argentinos Juniors team, where Maradona started his career in 1976.

In tears, Fernández also laid two handkerchiefs of the human rights organization Mother of the Plaza de Mayo, who wore them for years to protest the disappearance of their children under Argentina’s military dictatorship between 1976 and 1983. Maradona, an outspoken leftist who had an image of Argentine revolutionary Che Guevara tattooed on one bicep, was a friend of the Madres and other rights groups.

The lines started forming outside the Casa Rosada only hours after Maradona’s death was confirmed and grew to several blocks.

A huge mural of Maradona’s face was painted on the tiles that cover the Plaza de Mayo, near the Casa Rosada, which was decorated with a giant black ribbon at the entrance.

The first fan to visit was Nahuel de Lima, 30, using crutches to move because of a disability.

“He made Argentina be recognized all over the world, who speaks of Maradona also speaks of Argentina,” de Lima told The Associated Press. “Diego is the people. … Today the shirts, the political flags don’t matter. We came to say goodbye to a great that gave us a lot of joy.”

Maradona’s soccer genius, personal struggles and plain-spoken personality resonated deeply with Argentines.

He led an underdog team to glory in the 1986 World Cup, winning the title after scoring two astonishing goals in a semifinal match against England, thrilling a country that felt humiliated by its loss against the British in the recent Falklands war and that was still recovering from the brutal military dictatorship.

Soccer-stand insults chanted by the funeral crowd echoed that nationalist pride: “The one who doesn’t jump is English,” “Brazilian, Brazilian, you are so bitter, Maradona is bigger than Pelé.”

Many Argentines deeply sympathized with the struggles of a man who rose from poverty to fame and wealth and fell into abuse of drug, drink and food. He remained idolized in the soccer-mad nation as the “Pibe de Oro” or “Golden Boy.”

Many fans proudly displayed Maradona tattoos. Others, mindful of Maradona’s often tense relationship with the press, insulted journalists.

Lidia and Estela Villalba cried near the exit of the lobby. Both had a Boca Juniors shirt and an Argentinian flag on their shoulders.

“We told him we love him, that he was the greatest,” they said at the same time.

Many of those in line to enter the Casa Rosada wore masks because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but they struggled to keep social distancing.

Social worker Rosa Noemí Monje, 63, said she and others overseeing health protocols understood the emotion of the moment.

“It is impossible to ask them to distance. We behave respectfully and offer them sanitizer and face masks,” she said. Monje also paid her last tribute to Maradona.

“I told him: to victory always, Diego,” Monje said as she wept.

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