'He gave us a kind of joy that no one else did': Devastated Argentinians mourn the loss of Diego Maradona

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Natalie Alcoba
·5 min read
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Fans gather to honor Diego Armando Maradona at the Club Argentinos Juniors Stadium
Fans gather to honor Diego Armando Maradona at the Club Argentinos Juniors Stadium

Crowds gathered outside La Bombonera on Wednesday as Argentina descended into a collective state of shock over the passing of its beloved son, and brilliant star.

The news of Diego Maradona's death echoed on the streets, on the airwaves, in the homes and the tearful gazes of Argentinians across the football-mad nation.

Agustin Benitez learned of his idol's passing as he was roused from his sleep.

“Agustin, wake up,” his mother called out to him in their home in the famous Buenos Aires neighbourhood of La Boca. “Maradona is dead.”

“I woke up with such desperation, because he is my idol,” said Mr Benitez, 19, on the steps of La Bombonera, the famous stadium that is home to Boca Juniors, one of Argentina’s most celebrated football clubs and, as Mr Benitez put it, “Diego’s house.”

A fan pays tribute to Diego Maradona
A fan pays tribute to Diego Maradona

This is where he sparkled in the early 80s, before conquering Europe, and dramatically clinching the coveted World Cup in 1986. He returned later in his career.

“We have all of El Diego’s jerseys. He gave us a kind of joy that no one else did,” said Mr Benitez.

A large number of supporters pay tribute to Diego Maradona in front of the Argentinos Jrs stadium
A large number of supporters pay tribute to Diego Maradona in front of the Argentinos Jrs stadium

His sentiments were felt by Argentinians nationwide.

“Thank you Diego” the traffic signs in Buenos Aires read, as tributes rolled in online and stunned broadcasters played clips of Mr Maradona’s greatest goals, in solemn silence, urging viewers to reflect on their own memories of the sporting legend.

Crowds slowly gathered outside La Bombonera, as fans chanted out Mr Maradona’s name to music blasting from car radios. Some were too overcome with emotion to speak. The waved off news crews who flooded the scene.

A view of a traffic sign written 'Thank you Diego'
A view of a traffic sign written 'Thank you Diego'

Alberto Fernandez, the president of Argentina, declared three national days of mourning and offered Mr Maradona’s family presidential palace resources to plan the funeral.

“I doubt that we will ever see another player like Maradona in every way, not only because of his technical qualities, but also because of that courage, that strength, that grit, that he always had every time he put on the jersey that he had to defend. An exceptional player who only gave us joy,” said Mr Fernandez in a statement.

“He was a genuine man who expressed everything with the force with which he played football, defended what he wanted, mistreated what he hated. That was Maradona in its purest form,” the president added.

Aerial view of La Bombonera Stadium as it remains with the lights on as a tribute to Diego Maradona
Aerial view of La Bombonera Stadium as it remains with the lights on as a tribute to Diego Maradona

Part of Maradona’s magic was the intimate connection he generated with his fans. “He made us cry,” said Juan Carlos Martinez, a taxi driver who despite not being a football fan, recalled key victories secured by the legend.

Having witnessed his brilliance and audacity on the field, the meteoric highs and devastating lows of his career, people here felt they knew him personally. He was theirs, in all his perfect and imperfect glory.

“He was like my father,” said Patricia Veronica Sanchez, 46. “We’re like his children. Because when Diego comes around here for a game, we’re all yelling for Diego.”

Fans gather at Obelisk of Buenos Aires to mourn
Fans gather at Obelisk of Buenos Aires to mourn

She was also drawn to La Bombonera. There was nowhere else she wanted to be when she heard news of Mr Maradona’s passing. She put a Boca jersey on her 5 year old son, Angel, and they purchased flowers and a rosary that they dangled from the turnstiles into the soccer stadium. Ms Sanchez sat underneath, tears welling up in her eyes. Her boy brushed them aside.

She was happy to have a nice personal memory of Mr Maradona, from some 24 years ago. She and her partner were taking a stroll near the Buenos Aires neighbourhood of Puerto Madero, and they spotted Mr Maradona, with his young family, playing on a pitch. She was heavily pregnant at the time and approached the change room, hoping for an autograph.

Fans of Argentinian football legend Diego Maradona gather at Argentinos Junior's Diego Armando Maradona Stadium to pay homage on the day of his death in La Paternal neighbourhood
Fans of Argentinian football legend Diego Maradona gather at Argentinos Junior's Diego Armando Maradona Stadium to pay homage on the day of his death in La Paternal neighbourhood

“Diego comes out, all sweaty, and says to me, yes, mama,” she recalled. “I’m too pregnant to take the shirt off,” she told him, so they stretched it out and he left his signature. “What are you going to name the baby,” Mr Maradona asked.

“I was going to name him Diego, but then in the middle of labour and everything I forgot. I ended up naming him Lionel. That was the only time I met him.” She is grateful that she did.

Italy too has faced the news with an outpouring of sadness and shock. Soccer club Napoli said the death of its former star was a "devastating blow" for both the city and the club.

Mr Maradona played for Napoli between 1984 and 1991, helping the city win its first Serie A league title.

"We are in mourning," said club spokesman Nicola Lombardo. "We feel like a boxer who has been knocked out. We are in shock."

Ottavio Bianchi, former coach at SSC Napoli, added that he was so dismayed he was “not able to speak”.

Matteo Renzi, Italy’s former prime minister, simply said: “No words, just sadness. Rest in peace.”