BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) – Diego Maradona, widely regarded as one of the greatest soccer players of all time before drug and alcohol addiction marred his career, died on Wednesday at his home in Argentina after suffering a heart attack, his lawyer said. He was 60.
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.
He died four years to the day after one of his political heroes, former Cuban leader Fidel Castro, and 15 years to the day after another troubled but talented football folk hero, George Best, whom Maradona cited as one of his boyhood inspirations.
Maradona had recently battled health issues and underwent emergency surgery for a subdural haematoma several weeks ago.
He suffered a heart attack at his home on the outskirts of Buenos Aires on Wednesday, acquaintances of the former player said. His death was confirmed by his lawyer.
In Buenos Aires, people began pouring on to the streets to mourn the nation’s favourite son, gathering in the San Andres neighbourhood where he lived, in Boca, the gritty barrio where he first became a star, and in the nearby city of La Plata where he had lately been technical director for local team Gimnasia y Esgrima.
The Argentine government has declared three days of mourning. President Alberto Fernandez said in a tweet, “You took us to the highest point in the world, and made us immensely happy. You were the greatest of all. Thank you for having been with us, Diego. We will miss you all our lives.”
A wake would take place at Casa Rosada presidential palace from Thursday until Saturday, a government spokesman said.
Pope Francis, an Argentine and a football fan, was remembering Maradona in his prayers, the Vatican said.
At Buenos Aires metro stations, digital billboards replaced messages about trains with the words: “Gracias Diego”.
In the suburb of Villa Crespo, the song “La Mano de Dios” by folk singer Rodrigo Bueno rang out from a balcony, a reference to a goal Maradona scored with his hand against England in the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. In Argentina, Maradona has long been worshipped as ‘El Dios’ — The God.
While that goal — and his description of it as divine intervention — was Maradona’s most controversial, his second in that game, where he ran through the England team to score a stunning solo goal, showcased his extraordinary dribbling and control that many view as unmatched.
HIGHS AND LOWS
As well as many match-winning performances, Maradona charmed the world with ball-juggling skills that he first showed off as a 12-year-old ball boy.
But the other side of Maradona surfaced in the 1994 World Cup in the United States, when he was sent home after failing a doping test.
His last goal for Argentina came in that tournament against Greece in Boston and he celebrated by screaming angrily into a television camera.
Pele, the Brazilian footballer who is considered one of the only players to have come close to Maradona’s skill level, was quick to pay tribute to the Argentine.
“Certainly, one day we’ll kick a ball together in the sky above,” he said.
FIFA president Gianni Infantino said: “What Diego has done for football, for making us fall in love with this beautiful game, is unique. Diego deserves our eternal gratitude for that.”
At club level, Maradona broke on to the scene with Buenos Aires’ Boca Juniors before playing in Spain with Barcelona. He was idolised in Italy after leading Napoli to their first ever Italian league title in 1987.
The mayor of Naples, Luigi de Magistris, called for the team’s stadium to be renamed after the player.
“Diego made our people dream, he redeemed Naples with his genius. In 2017 he became our honorary citizen, Diego, Neapolitan and Argentine, you gave us joy and happiness! Naples loves you!” he wrote on Twitter.
Maradona-inspired street art and graffiti in the Italian city have long been tourist attractions, but he later faced tax problems in the country and in 2009 police seized his earrings in an effort to recover unpaid taxes while he was at a health clinic in northern Italy.
Maradona ended his playing career back in Argentina, returning to Boca. He had a brief and controversy-packed spell as Argentine national team coach from 2008 to 2010 before club coaching in the Middle East and Mexico.
He had five acknowledged children from relationships with several women but others have also claimed he was their father. His daughter Giannina was married for four years to Argentine player Sergio Aguero, who is a striker for the English Premier League club Manchester City.
Maradona became friends with Castro while receiving medical treatment in Cuba and he had tattoos of the Cuban leader and his former comrade Che Guevara. He was also a supporter of ex-Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez.
Years of drug use, overeating and alcoholism truncated his stellar career and altered his appearance from a lithe athlete who could slalom effortlessly through teams to a bloated addict who nearly died of cocaine-induced heart failure in 2000.
But at his peak he was, said Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo, an “unparalleled magician”.
“Today I say goodbye to a friend and the world says goodbye to an eternal genius,” he said.
“One of the best ever. An unparalleled magician. He leaves too soon, but leaves a legacy without limits and a void that will never be filled. Rest in peace, ace. You will never be forgotten.”
(Reporting by Cassandra Garrison, Nicolas Misculin, Hugh Bronstein, Jorge Otaola and Eliana Raszewski in Buenos Aires, Aislinn Laing in Santiago, Sarah Marsh in Havana, and Richard Martin in London; Writing by Simon Evans; Editing by Mike Collett-White, Rosalba O’Brien and Clare Fallon)