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BUENOS AIRES — Tens of thousands of fans eager to honor Diego Maradona lined up to file past the coffin of Argentina's most iconic soccer star on Thursday, some confronting police who tried to maintain order at the country's presidential mansion.
Some threw bottles and pieces of metal fencing at police near the Casa Rosada in the heart of Buenos Aires. Officers at one point used tear gas to try to control them.
Fans blew kisses as they passed Maradona's wooden casket in the main lobby of the presidential building, some strike their chests with closed fists and shouting, “Let’s go, Diego.”
The casket was covered in an Argentine flag and the No. 10 shirt he famously wore for the national team. Dozens of other shirts of different soccer teams tossed in by weeping visitors were scattered on and around the casket.
Maradona died on Wednesday of a heart attack in a house outside Buenos Aires where he recovered from a brain operation on Nov. 3.
Open visitation started at 6:15 a.m. local time 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.
The lines started forming outside the Casa Rosada only hours after Maradona’s death was confirmed and grew to several blocks. Among those present were the renowned barrabravas fans of Boca Juniors, one of his former clubs.
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.