Stunned Argentines were plunged into grief Wednesday by the death of the country's favourite son Diego Maradona, a sublimely gifted sporting hero they saw as "the most human of Gods."
The news fell like a hammer blow a nation beaten down by months of economic crisis and the health pandemic, but one where football is oftenseen as a panacea for all ills.
Fans searching for a place to grieve gravitated towards the Obelisk landmark in the center of Buenos Aires – and, of course, the Bombonera, the steep-sided cauldron of a stadium that is home to Boca Juniors, where Maradona's genius was forged.
"I can't believe it. It's incredible. One thinks one gets through any storm, but no, everyone ends up being mortal. It feels like a bad dream. A joke," Francisco Salaverry, 28, told AFP.
"Today's a bad day. A very sad day for all Argentines," President Alberto Fernández summed up in an interview with sports channel TyC, after declaring three days of national mourning.
All around the city, the mourning had already begun as fans stood forlornly beside banners in homage to the Number 10, showing Maradona – who died aged 60 of a heart attack – in his dashing prime.
Many of the banners simply said 'D10S,' a play on the Spanish word "dios" for "God" that includes Maradona's shirt number.
If football is a religion in Argentina, then Maradona really was its God – especially for the founders of the Maradonian Church, a mostly Internet-based group that uses religious language to venerate the player.
The "Church" called on fans to gather in his honour at the Obelisk at 6pm local time, a traditional rallying point in central Buenos Aires for football-related celebrations.
"I prefer not to speak. I'm going to the Obelisk today," said Guillermo Rodríguez, a fan who gave himself a tattoo of his idol on October 30 to celebrate Maradona's 60th birthday.
Rodríguez, 42, couldn't hold back his tears, saying he now knew he would never be able to fulfill his dream of hugging his idol.
"I'm totally shocked, grief stricken," said Gabriel Oturi, 68. "I'll be honest with you. I thought he was a great guy who didn't have very good people around him, who was taken advantage of a lot."
"The first thing my 12-year-old son said to me was: 'Mum, Maradona died.' I couldn't believe it. And I didn't adore him particularly, but I felt sorry for him," said Marcela Rodríguez, 52.
"Few times in my life have I felt the pain that invades me today," wrote Maurico Passadore on social media, thinking about the famous World Cup tie against England in Mexico 1986, when Maradona scored the infamous "Hand of God" goal.
"Few times have I felt as much joy as that June 29, when we touched the sky with our hands, the same sky that today is darkened and fills us with tears."
Some pointed out that Maradona died on the same date as his hero Fidel Castro, the Cuban revolutionary leader he referred to as his "second father."
Maradona's struggles with drugs throughout his career were part of what made Argentines so protective of their hero.
An anonymous social media user went viral with a message saying Maradona "was a wandering, dirty and sinful God – the most human of Gods."
by Liliana Samuel, AFP