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.
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 12 hours after it started, as Maradona’s family farewelled the body of the Argentine icon taken away for burial, frustrating many who were waiting to pay their respects and causing new tensions at the gates of the cemetery.
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. The casket was placed in a car that carried the former footballer’s name on a paperboard by the window.
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.
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.
Maradona died Wednesday of a heart attack in a house outside Buenos Aires where he had been recovering from a brain operation Nov. 3.
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, that was draped with the Argentine flag and shirts bearing his famed No. 10 from the national team and the Boca Juniors club.
Open visitation began 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 footballers, such as Boca Juniors’ Carlos Tevez, also attended.
A tearful 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.
Maradona’s soccer genius, personal struggles and plain-spoken personality resonated deeply with Argentines.
Many 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.”
Australian Associated Press