‘Diego lives in the people’: Devastated Argentina bids farewell to Maradona

Buenos Aires: 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 honours with the chaos of a rowdy stadium.

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

A small funeral is held for Diego Maradona as police keep thousands of fans at bay.Credit:AP

Arevalo, one of the few reporters who enjoyed Maradona's confidence, confirmed the details of the Maradona's wishes, adding that Maradona wanted "to remain with us forever".

Two other legends of Argentina's modern history, President Juan Peron and his wife Eva Peron, were embalmed.

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 6pm, 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.

Tens of thousands lined the roads in Buenos Aires to pay their respects to Diego Maradona.Credit:Getty Images

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 organisers and the violence resulted in injuries and arrests, which led Maradona's family to end the public visitation. 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.

Grieving fans pay tribute.Credit:AP

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.

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.

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 6.15am 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 Villafane, came with Maradona's daughters Dalma and Gianinna. Later came Veronica Ojeda, also an ex-wife, with their son, Dieguito Fernando.

Jana Maradona, who the player recognised 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 players, such as Boca Juniors’ Carlos Tevez, 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 Fernandez 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 organisation 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.

Mourners queued for hours to see Diego Maradona lying in state.Credit:AP

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 recognised all over the world, who speaks of Maradona also speaks of Argentina," de Lima said. “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.

Fans wave flags as Diego Maradona lies in state at the presidential palace in Buenos Aires.Credit:AP

He led an underdog team to glory in the 1986 World Cup, winning the title after scoring two astonishing goals in a semi-final 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 Pele.”

Many Argentines deeply sympathised 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 idolised 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.

AP, Reuters

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