Buenos Aires, Argentina — As Luciano Perez walked with his son Dante towards Argentina’s presidential palace, where Diego Maradona’s coffin was on display, he took solace in the crowds that had gathered along the Avenida de Mayo.
He was glad to see that tens of thousands of people had showed up to honour the football icon he had grown up with and to whom he owed his love of the game.
But when he stepped inside the Casa Rosada, and passed the closed coffin, cloaked in the Argentine flag and jerseys worn by El Diego, his emotions darkened.
“I didn’t get to meet him and to see him, now, in a coffin, it was just terrible,” said Perez, 36.
Argentina did not expect this. The sudden loss of Maradona feels too hard to process, too raw to put into words for this football-obsessed nation.
A genius on the pitch, the player who carried the national squad to soaring heights in the 1986 World Cup, Maradona’s name became synonymous with his native soil.
Now, the country is overcome by acute grief, punctuated by the kind of singing and dancing that was reserved for his dazzling goals. Fans needed to celebrate El Diego, it was like a balm for the pain.
Some of the heightened emotions spilled over into confrontations with police, as some fans tried to push their way into the presidential palace in the early morning hours. Others sought to push past the line that police had cut off as the end of visitation hours drew near.
Maradona died on Wednesday following a heart attack. His body was carried by motorcade to the Casa Rosada after nightfall, as thousands sought the company of fellow mourners at the Buenos Aires Obelisk. Many of them shifted over to La Casa Rosada, to line up for their chance to spend a few seconds near their idol.
About one million people are expected to pay their last respects at the official wake. A state funeral is being planned although the details are not clear. The Reuters news agency reported that Maradona’s family wants to bury his body on Thursday evening in the Bella Vista cemetery in Buenos Aires province, where his parents are buried.
As the initial 4pm (19:00 GMT) cutoff for the viewing approached, police closed off the line. Television networks reported that fans pushed passed them, throwing rocks as police fired rubber bullets. The cutoff was extended until 7pm (22:00 GMT).
Local media reported that the coffin would travel to the cemetery by way of the 9 de Julio, the iconic Buenos Aires avenue, so that the throngs that lined it could catch one final glimpse of their idol.
“Today there is no jersey. Today there is no political party. That’s what Diego was all his life. He unified Argentinians,” said Nahuel De Lima, 30, the first person in line at the wake, and who came from Villa Fiorito, the same impoverished Buenos Aires neighbourhood that Maradona grew up in.
Close behind him was Dolores Morales, who clutched an old magazine cover from the World Cup-winning era.
“Sometimes you don’t know how to describe things, but he’s the greatest, he’s a god. And there will be a day for Maradona, remember that,” said Morales.
“Maradona represents Argentinianess,” said Martin Rabassano. “Did he have contradictions? Sure, like the whole world. He transcended football. He’s a lot more than a ball. So, he has my respect, and his family has my respect. I had to be here.”
As did Perez, with his son Dante. His love of football and Maradona has stayed with him throughout his life.
“He was my childhood. My adolescence. The reason why I played football,” said Perez, who is from the Buenos Aires suburb of Lanus. “He had a magnetism that was different. He’s a dude that came from the bottom, that empathises with the worker, with the person who doesn’t work, the rich person, with anyone. He is authentic. That’s the most important thing.”