BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) – Heartbroken fans of Diego Maradona gathered on the streets of Buenos Aires to mourn the Argentine soccer legend’s death on Wednesday, praying, laying flowers and singing patriotic and sport chants.
President Alberto Fernandez declared three days of national mourning after Maradona, 60, died at home following a heart attack, after battling a series of health problems.
At Maradona’s childhood home in Villa Fiorito, a largely impoverished city in the suburbs of the capital, people gathered to pray in front of an Argentine flag adorned with a black ribbon.
Next to Maradona’s former club, Boca Juniors, in the gritty Buenos Aires neighborhood of Boca, they laid bouquets of flowers.
“I came because I felt him. He’s from here, from us,” said Juan Jose Quinteros, 50, a Boca supporter who came to mourn Maradona outside the club.
“With that hand of God he gave the soul back to the people,” Quinteros said, a reference to a goal Maradona scored with his hand against England in the 1986 World Cup in Mexico.
Others gathered in the San Andres neighborhood where he lived and in the nearby city of La Plata where he had lately been technical director for local team Gimnasia y Esgrima. Crowds of people also sang Argentina’s national anthem outside the hospital where officials are expected to perform Maradona’s autopsy.
Digital signs used for public transportation updates were illuminated around the city with the message “Thank you, Diego.”
As Wednesday evening came, some fans stood outside the Casa Rosada presidential palace, ahead of Maradona’s wake due to begin on Thursday. Near the Obelisco downtown, a traditional focus of sporting celebrations, fans gathered in Argentina soccer jerseys to sing songs in his honor.
“Diego is the greatest there is, the best. I met my wife in 1986 when Diego scored the goal with his hand,” said 53-year-old Buenos Aires resident Jose Luis Shokiva.
“The truth for me is that Diego is everything. As a Boca fan, as an Argentine, he is the greatest. What has happened is an immense sadness,” said Shokiva, wearing a t-shirt with Maradona’s image.
Maradona was globally famed as one of the greatest soccer players of all time, but at home was idolized as a god. Fans have long referred to him as ‘El Dios’ – which means ‘The God’, but is also a play on words on his number 10 shirt, ‘El Diez.’
“I am very sad, he was someone who was part of our childhood and adolescence,” said Mariela Barg, a lawyer in Buenos Aires. Thinking of him brought back memories of celebrating the World Cup win in 1986, she said.
“He was intertwined with something so Argentine as soccer, and now he is gone.”
(Reporting by Reuters TV; additional reporting by Eliana Raszewski; writing by Cassandra Garrison; Editing by Rosalba O’Brien)