Football: Argentine legend Diego Maradona laid to rest, clashes erupt between fans and police

Maradona was interred after a simple religious ceremony attended by family and close friends in a cemetery outside Buenos Aires. PHOTO: REUTERS
Fans of Diego Maradona gather in front of the funeral chapel installed in the Casa Rosada, in Buenos Aires, on Nov 26, 2020. PHOTO: EPA-EFE
Fans surround the hearse carrying the late Diego Maradona in Buenos Aires on Nov 26, 2020. PHOTO: AFP PHOTO / TELAM / LEANDRO BLANCO

BUENOS AIRES (AFP, REUTERS) - Argentine football legend Diego Maradona was laid to rest on Thursday (Nov 26) after a private funeral on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, local television images showed.

As darkness fell, he was interred after a simple religious ceremony attended by family and close friends in the leafy surrounds of the Bella Vista cemetery outside the capital amid a global outpouring of grief.

The death of Maradona at the age of 60 on Wednesday, following a heart attack, has sparked both mourning and celebrations of a true sporting star, who was a genius on the football field but lived a life marred by struggles with addiction.

The World Cup winner was taken by hearse late on Thursday afternoon to the cemetery where his parents are also interred.

The burial followed a day of high emotion that saw clashes between police and fans near the presidential palace in central Buenos Aires where Maradona lay in state in a closed casket for people to say their final farewells.

Thousands of people had surrounded the pink-hued Casa Rosada and there was a febrile atmosphere more akin to a rowdy football game than a formal wake, with fans clambering up the palace gates to get as close as possible to their hero.

The tensions eventually eased after his body was transferred by hearse to the cemetery, surrounded by a huge procession of police and others on motorbikes. Thousands of Argentines lined the roads as it passed on the hour-long journey to Bella Vista.

In Italy, crowds tied hundreds of blue-and-white scarves to the railings outside his former club Napoli, while in France, sports paper L'Equipe's front page blared out: "God is dead".

In Argentina, three days of national mourning were called for the player who led the country to a 1986 World Cup win and is revered with cult-like status. Tens of thousands took to the streets, not all wearing masks, despite fears over the Covid-19 pandemic. Some left flowers and messages at his childhood home.

"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 supporter of the star's former club Boca Juniors said with tears in his eyes after he had filed past the coffin.

"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.

Mile-long lines

During the day, Maradona's body lay in state in a wooden coffin at the Casa Rosada presidential palace on the central Plaza de Mayo. It was covered with the blue-and-white national flag and an Argentina jersey with the number 10 that had been part of his nickname "D10S" - a play on "dios", the Spanish word for God.

Starting at dawn on Thursday, thousands had formed a snaking line estimated at over a mile (1.6 km) long through the streets of Buenos Aires near the plaza, after a night of mourning and reminiscing.

But as the day wore on, fans queueing outside the palace grew increasingly impatient and some took over a courtyard inside the palace, where they chanted slogans.

Officials moved the coffin to another room as a security precaution, a government source told AFP.

The government announced a three-hour extension to the wake to allow time for the thousands of fans to pay their respects.

As authorities started to close down access to the central square on Thursday afternoon, scuffles broke out, with police using rubber bullets and water cannon to disperse the unruly crowds. Riot police clashed with stone-throwing fans on streets around the palace, and several people were arrested.

Fans who got inside the palace - many missed out - threw football jerseys, flowers and other items towards the casket.

"He was someone who touched the sky with his hands but never took his feet off the ground," President Alberto Fernandez said. He paid his respects at the casket on Thursday.

In Naples, meanwhile, fans laid out flowers, children's pictures, candles and even a bottle of wine in a rapidly expanding, makeshift shrine.

Diego Maradona fans clash with police in Buenos Aires, on November 26, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

"Diego belongs to the people"

Major athletes and world leaders, including Argentina-born Pope Francis, have paid their own tributes.

Newspapers around the world ran his picture on front covers and made a play on his nickname to say "Adios" - goodbye.

"Diego belongs to the people, Diego belongs to Argentina, Diego belongs to the country," said Dario Lozano, waiting in line to view the casket.

Beloved in his homeland after leading Argentina to World Cup glory in 1986 and adored in Italy for taking Napoli to two Serie A titles, Maradona was a uniquely gifted player who rose from the tough streets of Buenos Aires to reach the pinnacle of his sport.

The 1986 World Cup included a quarter-final game against England where Maradona scored two of the tournament's best-known goals ever - an illicit "Hand of God" goal and one that followed an incredible swerving, dribble.

Maradona also battled various health problems over the years as a result of his addictions. Earlier this month, he was hospitalised for symptoms including anaemia and dehydration and underwent emergency surgery for a subdural haematoma - a blood clot in the brain.

On Thursday, his lawyer, Matías Morla, said he would ask for a full investigation into the circumstances of the death, and criticised what he said was a slow response by emergency services.

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