Crowds flood squares, streets and Argentina’s presidential palace to honour the late soccer icon

Wake expected to draw a million people, with some comparing it to the service for former first lady Eva Peron

Pent-up emotions after eight months of strict Covid-19 restrictions in Argentina spilled over with the death of soccer superstar Diego Maradona, prompting people to flood squares, streets and the presidential palace to honour their icon.

After many supporters waited in barricaded lines overnight to pay their respects, the wake was largely orderly and peaceful until the afternoon when the homage abruptly ended amid crowds streaming into the palace known as the Casa Rosada in downtown Buenos Aires.

Clashes with the police took place in and around the iconic Plaza de Mayo in front of the main government buildings.

Earlier, a live stream of the casket showed masked Argentines singing, crying and tossing flowers toward the casket draped in the national team shirt with his No 10. President Alberto Fernandez, his cabinet and soccer coaches and players were among the visitors. The government declared three days of mourning after his sudden death on Wednesday.

“I don’t care about dying. I loved Diego and I hold him in my soul,” said Juan Carlos Luna, a 79-year-old retired building porter when asked whether he was concerned about the risk of being infected by Covid-19.

People lined up for as many as 11 blocks to enter the presidential palace to see the casket. While certain rules were imposed within the building, social distancing and mask wearing was impossible to police outside. The wake was expected to draw a million people, with some comparing it to the service for former first lady Eva Peron.

The opening to a mass gathering marks a sharp contrast to nearly eight months of tightly managed lockdown, one of the longest in the world. Airports have only recently resumed normal operations. Currently, the city only allows outdoor gatherings of up to 10 people and schools are allowed to host short outdoor activities of as many as 10 students at a time.

The government was initially praised for its swift and strict March lockdown to halt the spread of the coronavirus, but cases continued spreading through the winter, reaching a peak in October.

The country has failed to carry out widespread testing leading to positivity rates of as high as 65 per cent during the pandemic.

Argentina ranked second-last of 53 countries in Bloomberg’s Covid Resilience Ranking, which examined data to determine the best places to be during the pandemic including overall cases, deaths, expected economic impact and testing.

The South American nation of 45 million people, which is battling years of economic malaise and recently restructured US$65 billion of debt, has about 1.4 million cases and 37,000 deaths from the virus. That ranks ninth and tenth respectively in the world.

Within hours of the news of Maradona’s death fans of all ages began chanting soccer anthems around the iconic Obelisk in the city centre, waving flags. Food, beer and merchandise stands added to the festive stadium ambience.

The event drew criticism from some opposition politicians who note that the government still has not released a wide-ranging plan to reopen schools but managed to quickly pull together the mass event in Maradona’s honour. Jogging and outdoor dining was only authorised relatively recently in the capital.

Maradona led Argentina to the 1986 World Cup and won league championships in Italy and at home, granting him the sort of iconic status normally reserved for war heroes.

But while his scoring prowess and flair in slaloming past opponents vaulted him into the hall of soccer fame, he struggled to cope with the adulation and his battles with addiction became regular global news.

“Today is really a special day and the pandemic gets relegated to a second tier,” said Pablo Aviñoa, 45, an airline steward, as he walked out of the presidential palace. He added that there was sufficient space for people to socially distance as they entered to see the casket.

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