BUENOS AIRES – People placed flowers and lit candles under a mural by Diego Maradona in front of the stadium that bears his name. A man cried inconsolably.
At the obelisk in central Buenos Aires, another man waved a banner depicting Maradona that read, “God is Argentine”.
A feeling of disbelief struck Argentina on Wednesday when word spread that the football star had died that morning at his home in Tiger, north of Buenos Aires. The government ordered a three-day mourning.
Mr. Maradona, often referred to as one of the best players in the game, was revered by his Argentine counterparts – not only for his performance on the pitch, but also for his rise from poverty to global stardom. He remained a national hero even when his personal life, which included long periods of drug and alcohol use, made the whole world a tabloid fodder.
Because people gathered across the country to honor the man, they often simply referred to “El Diego,” some chose the Buenos Aires Stadium, where he began his career in 1976 as a young player for the Argentinos Juniors club, which was later renamed him. . .
“When I first saw him, I didn’t believe it,” said Hugo Daniel Santiuste, 66, who said he saw Mr. Maradona’s second match so far at the stadium. – I’ve never seen anything like it.
But even the late-born Argentines mourned.
“I feel like a member of my family has just died,” said Joaquín López Castan, 19. “I’ve wanted to play football like Maradona my whole life.”
Mr. Maradona underwent brain surgery earlier this month and had a number of medical problems in the past. But his death, which the spokesman said caused the heart attack, still shocked many.
“He was Maradona, he always managed to get through,” said João Dejtiar, 19.
Around Buenos Aires, a number of places have become open mourning areas for fans, including the morgue, where officials brought his body; a modest former home in Villa Fiorito, the impoverished area where he grew up; and La Bombonera Stadium, where he once played as a member of the Boca Juniors club.
Hundreds also gathered in downtown Buenos Aires as the government expected a huge revival in the presidential palace on Thursday.
At 10 p.m., people applauded from their balcony in honor of Mr. Maradona, who wore the toy maker’s traditional No. 10 jersey.
Since Wednesday became Thursday, people didn’t seem to be in a hurry home. Hundreds sang and sang to Mr. Maradona in front of the Presidential Palace, while a few began to follow in their footsteps.
“Of course, Maradona was the greatest footballer he’s ever seen, but that doesn’t tell the whole story yet. There is something that makes it much more than that, ”said sports journalist Alejandro Wall.
“Diego is Argentina’s great narrator,” he said.
Mr Maradona is always remembered for leading Argentina to victory in the 1986 World Cup. In the infamous quarterfinals against England, he scored one of the most beautiful goals in the history of the game, as well as an illegal hand goal. (“They got it a little with Diego’s head and a little with God’s hand,” he said later about that goal.)
The English were angry, but in Argentina — still suffering the humiliation of Britain’s 1982 defeat in the short war against the Falkland Islands, which Argentina calls Malvinas and claims as its own — Mr. Maradona was praised.
“The narrative comes about that the goal was not illegal because, in reality, God did justice after the defeat of the 1982 war,” said Lívia Gonçalves Magalhães, a historian at the Federal Fluminense University in Brazil, who studies the intersection of football and politics. In South America.
“It was the happiest moment of my life,” said Juan José Azcurra, 67, passing a smile with tears as he recalled the goal. “I’ll never forget.”
This World Cup was doubly sweet because “no one believed in the team and in the end everything was amazing,” said Veronica Moreira, an anthropologist who studies sports at the Argentine National Council for Scientific and Technical Research. Argentina’s victory in the final against West Germany reinforced Mr Maradona’s position as the leader who took the disadvantaged team to victory.
Overcoming chances has been a constant theme in Mr. Maradona’s life story. His rise from poverty was one of the reasons many Argentines continued to identify with him, even when he became world famous.
“He never stopped being part of the people,” said Gastón Tescusinsky, 44, who has a tattoo of Mr. Maradona on his arm. “She’s always been a kid in Fiorito.”
Mr Maradona was a left-wing politician, and Ms Magalhães noted that she would publicly criticize the leaders of FIFA, the global governing body of football, “without worrying about the consequences”.
“Maradona was a controversial character who garnered a lot of empathy,” said Rodrigo Daskal, a researcher at the Center for Sports Science at the National University of San Martín. “Maradona was always authentic and never tried to dress any part of her life.”
Mr. Maradona’s whims about his struggles with alcohol and drugs have been appreciated by many of his fans, especially those who have had experience with addiction. “My old man had problems with drugs, who am I to judge Maradona?” said Pablo Neyret, 42, who had tears in his eyes.
Songs were written in honor of Mr. Maradona, and a few sentences entered the everyday lexicon of the Argentines. One was that “my leg was cut off,” which he said after the 1994 World Cup was fired for doping.
Mr Fassa, 43, called Mr Victoria Maradona “above all a passionate rebel who said what he thought without caring about the consequences”.
He added, “He was 100 percent Argentine.”
Manuela Andreoni contributed from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and Anatoly Kurmanaev from Caracas, Venezuela.