BUENOS AIRES (AP) — Tens of thousands of fans, many weeping, filed past the coffin of Diego Maradona, Argentina’s most iconic soccer star on Thursday in ceremonies that mixed head-of-state-like honors with the chaos of a rowdy stadium.
Fans singing soccer anthems, some draped in the national flag, formed a line more than 20 blocks long stretching 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 nation’s presidential palace drawing short, police moved to cut off the back end of the crowd, enraging fans who hurled rocks and other objects at police, who responded with rubber bullets.
While the scenario was that of a state funeral, a 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 Maradona’s wooden casket, some striking their chests with closed fists and shouting, “Let’s go Diego.”
It was draped with the Argentinian flag and shirts bearing his famed number 10 from the national team and the club side Boca Juniors, with other jerseys tossed around it by passing admirers.
Maradona died on Wednesday of a heart attack in a house outside Buenos Aires where he had been recovering from a brain operation on Nov. 3.
Open visitation began at 6:15 a.m. after a few hours of privacy for family and close friends. The first to bid farewell were his daughters and close family members. His ex-wife Claudia Villafañe came with Maradona’s daughters Dalma and Gianinna. Later came Verónica Ojeda, also his ex-wife, with their son Dieguito Fernando.
Jana, who Maradona recognized as his daughter only a few years ago, also attended the funeral.
Then came former teammates of the 1986 World Cup-winning squad including Oscar Ruggeri. Other Argentine footballers, such as Boca Juniors’ Carlos Tévez, showed up, too.
Early in the morning some fans grew impatient as police tried to maintain order, throwing bottles and pieces of metal fencing at police outside the presidential offices in the heart of Buenos Aires. Officers at one point used tear gas to try to control them.
Argentina President Alberto Fernández appeared at midday and placed on the casket a shirt of Argentinos Juniors, where Maradona started his career in 1976.
In tears, Fernández also laid two handkerchiefs of the human rights organization Mother of the Plaza de Mayo, who wore them for years to protest the disappearance of their children under the Argentina’s military dictatorship between 1976 and 1983.
Maradona, an outspoken leftist who had an image of Argentine Revolutionary Che Guevara tattooed on one bicep, was a friend of the Madres and of other human rights organizations.
The lines started forming outside the Casa Rosada only hours after Maradona’s death was confirmed and grew to several blocks.
A huge mural of Maradona’a face was painted on the tiles that cover the Plaza de Mayo, near the Casa Rosada, which was decorated with a giant black ribbon at the entrance.
The first fan to visit was Nahuel de Lima, 30, using crutches to move because of a disability.
“He made Argentina be recognized all over the world, who speaks of Maradona also speaks of Argentina,” de Lima told The Associated Press. “Diego is the people.... Today the shirts, the political flags don’t matter. We came to say goodbye to a great that gave us a lot of joy.”
Maradona’s soccer genius, personal struggles and plain-spoken personality resonated deeply with Argentines.
He led an underdog team to glory in the 1986 World Cup, winning the title after scoring two astonishing goals in a semifinal match against England, thrilling a country that felt humiliated by its loss against the British in the recent Falklands war and that was still recovering from the brutal military dictatorship.
Soccer-stand insults chanted by the funeral crowd echoed that nationalist pride: “The one who doesn’t jump is English,” “Brazilian, Brazilian, you are so bitter, Maradona is bigger than Pelé.”
Many Argentines deeply sympathized 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 idolized in the soccer-mad nation as the “Pibe de Oro” or “Golden Boy.”
Many fans proudly displayed Maradona tattoos. Others, mindful of Maradona’s often tense relationship with the press, insulted journalists.
Lidia and Estela Villalba cried near the exit of the lobby. Both had a Boca Juniors shirt and an Argentinian flag on their shoulders.
“We told him we love him, that he was the greatest,” they said at the same time.
Many of those in line to enter the Casa Rosada wore masks because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but they struggled to keep social distancing.
Social worker Rosa Noemí Monje, 63, said she and others overseeing health protocols understood the emotion of the moment.
“It is impossible to ask them to distance. We behave respectfully and offer them sanitizer and face masks,” she said. Monje also paid her last tribute to Maradona.
“I told him: to victory always, Diego,” Monje said as she wept.