RIO DE JANEIRO — He was first a soccer player. One of — if not the — greatest. But as the world reacted to the death of Argentine soccer icon Diego Maradona on Wednesday, it became clear that he will be remembered as much more than just an athlete.
He was the most bitter of rivals in soccer-mad Brazil, dazzling on the field and maddening off it. “Go back to the museum,” he once told Pelé.
He was the outspoken supporter of the Latin American left, befriending Venezuela’s socialist president Hugo Chávez and tattooing an image of Argentine-born revolutionary leader Ernesto “Che” Guevara on his left biceps and one of Fidel Castro on his left calf.
He was, in Argentina and beyond, simply “D10S,” a mixture of the number he wore and the word for God in Spanish.
Maradona died of a heart attack Wednesday at age 60 in the province of Buenos Aires. His death immediately dominated news coverage and conversations across much of the world, bringing to light the complex hues of his kaleidoscopic identity. World leaders and famous athletes expressed their condolences. Fans shared their favorite clips on social media of his preternatural athletic abilities. Others lamented the drug addictions he struggled to vanquish. Many could only express gratitude.
“Gracias Diego,” trended on Twitter.
But the loss was felt most acutely in Argentina, where Maradona hovered somewhere between man and deity. In years during which the country underwent one hardship after another — the shadow of military dictatorships, failed economic aspirations, a doomed war against Britain — he had offered a collective hope around which to rally.
His story had been improbable from the beginning. In a country of profound inequality and rigid social dynamics, he grew up in the outskirts of Buenos Aires, just one more boy from the slums. But he quickly rose to the heights of Argentine society by the grace of athletic prowess many could describe only as divine. By 19, he had already scored his 100th goal. His image was soon everywhere.
“You took us to the top of the world,” Argentine President Alberto Fernández said of Maradona, announcing three days of national mourning. “You made us immensely happy. You were the greatest of all.”
People all over Argentina struggled to put his loss into words.
“My grandfather told me about the joys, dribbling and impossible things that Diego did on the field,” one fan wrote. “Today my grandmother, with her eyes full of tears, told me what it was like to win the ’86 World Cup.”
Lionel Messi, Maradona’s heir-apparent in Argentine soccer royalty, said it was a sad day not just for Argentina but for soccer itself. “He leaves us, but he’s not gone, because el Diego is eternal,” he wrote on Instagram.
The Vatican said Pope Francis, the first Argentine pontiff, has remembered Maradona — a “poet of soccer” — in his prayers.
The news ricocheted into neighboring Brazil, where Pelé, who along with Maradona was voted by FIFA in 2000 as the greatest player in soccer’s history, mourned the loss. “I lost a great friend, and the world lost a legend,” he said. “One day, I hope that we can play ball together in heaven.”
In England, where many still speak often of the goal Maradona scored with his fist in 1986 — called the “hand of God” goal — there was an outpouring of grief over his death.
“By some distance the best player of my generation and arguably the greatest of all time,” said Gary Lineker, the striker who played against Maradona in that game. “After a blessed but troubled life, hopefully he’ll finally find some comfort in the hands of God.”
In Italy, where Maradona spent the best years of his career playing in Naples, his death was met with sadness and gratitude. Mourners gathered outside San Paolo Stadium, where he once played, waving a flag emblazoned with the image of Maradona. Naples Mayor Luigi de Magistris said in a Facebook video that the city’s love for Maradona was “visceral,” calling for the stadium to be named after him.
“For us he’s the one who made Naples dream,” de Magistris said. “He gave us happiness. Many called their children Diego.”
Maradona came to Naples in the mid-1980s at a time when he and the city he played in were at a crossroads. In a city known for mismanagement and unemployment — and the base of a team perennially clobbered by wealthier teams — Maradona arrived to the welcome ceremony via helicopter. Some 75,000 cheered from the stands to greet him.
But the controversies piled up. Maradona gained weight, dealt with paternity suits, failed a drug test for cocaine and was accused of domestic violence, which he denied. A man who once seemed so invincible suddenly appeared anything but. As the years have passed, however, many in Naples have come to see him as the embodiment of the city’s best qualities: fearlessness and creativity.
Even now, Maradona’s portrait is painted on the sides of apartment buildings, his jersey hangs in countless bars, and stores sell his figurines alongside those of the pope. His image looms in religious shrines.
In recent years, as he shifted his passion for soccer from playing to coaching, his body began to give out. He told reporters that he felt far older than his years and came to regret the talents that drugs had taken from him.
Weeks ago, he left a match he was coaching early. Then this month, he checked in to a clinic in La Plata, Argentina. The doctor said he was suffering from a head injury that Maradona could not recall.
Authorities on Wednesday said there were no signs of violence surrounding his death. “The death only has natural characteristics,” said a local official.
A quiet end for a man who lived his life in defiance of the adjective.
“Maradona has died,” read the banner headline in Argentina’s Clarín newspaper, “and the world cries for him.”
Heloísa Traiano in Rio de Janeiro and Stefano Pitrelli in Rome contributed to this report.