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The predictably chaotic goodbye to Maradona

Fans overwhelmed organizers after tense negotiations between family and gov't

By | [email protected] | December 1, 2020 11:41am

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Just like Diego Maradona. With deep emotion, pain, tears, and intense passion. But also with a whirlwind that struck Casa Rosada and hit at everything in its way. The goodbye to Argentina’s number 10 overwhelmed feelings and presidential security at the Balcarce 50 government house, and had President Alberto Fernández and VP Cristina Kirchner getting personally involved in negotiations with the family.

Early fears

The government was fearful of a chaotic farewell since the day Maradona passed. Understanding the magnitude of his figure, the President contacted Maradona’s former wife Claudia Villafañe and offered her and the family the Casa Rosada for the event. Fernández had in mind a long but orderly wake, similar to that of Néstor Kirchner ten years ago, in the same Latin American Patriots Hall at the government house.

But the first replies from the family started getting him worried. Villafañe wanted a short ceremony, saying she didn’t want to subject her daughters to an event that dragged on forever. Miguel Cuberos, Undersecretary General for the Presidency, put together a small army of workers to ready Casa Rosada for the funeral, cleaning the hall from debris and construction materials of undergoing reforms, as well as taking out furniture and sculptures that might get in the way for the mass ceremony. The nearby Native Peoples’ Hall was also set up for family members and close friends.

Throughout the day, the President and his staff tried to convince Villafañe to extend the ceremony until most fans could say goodbye, but to no avail. On Wednesday night, the schedule for the ceremony was published, with 4 PM as the wake’s ending time.

Clashes with the family

Villafañe and Maradona’s daughters got to the Casa Rosada by midnight. So did others in the family, close friends, and the members of the world-cup winning 1986 national football team. Their private ceremony lasted all night, and at 6 AM the doors were opened for the incoming flood of fans that had been queuing outside for hours for a final goodbye.

The government was making a bet: that witnessing the sheer amount of people gathering outside would make the family change its mind and extend the wake. It didn’t work.

President Fernández arrived at Casa Rosada near 11 AM, in a chopper next to his partner Fabiola Yañez, Press secretary Juan Pablo Biondi and Secretary General Julio Vitobello, and paid his homage. He was soon followed by athletes and public officials of all ranks: ministers, secretaries, lawmakers, ambassadors, mayors and any and all type of member of the Frente de Todos coalition.  For the opposition, historically influential deal-maker Enrique Nosiglia was there, and spent a while talking with Villafañe, as did President Fernández shortly after his arrival. Meanwhile, through another entrance, fans kept moving through the hall for a few last seconds besides Maradona’s casket.

Nervous at the growing amount of visitors, Giannina Maradona went straight to Fernández to complain about how people were even crowding the Casa Rosada balconies. The atmosphere inside grew more tense and the family confirmed that the wake would not extend beyond the original schedule.

Nervous fans

By 2:30 PM, tension was also growing outside, with closing time approaching and thousands of fans still many blocks away from the entrance. It was then that VP Cristina Fernández de Kirchner made her appearance, and the doors were closed to the public for a few minutes, even though invited visitors and political leaders still had their own entrance available.

With the casket in front of them, President, VP, BA Governor Axel Kicillof and Interior Minister Eduardo de Pedro, talked with Claudia Villafañe, Dalma, Giannina and Jana Maradona, and asked them again to revise their decision. Villafañe initially accepted extending the ceremony until 7 PM and this was announced to the public. But by this point, the streets were already getting messy.

Metropolitan police clash with fans outside of Maradona's wake in the Casa Rosada

Minutes after 3 PM, a group of fans jumped the Casa Rosada fences and its turnstiles, and proved too many for security to contain. The inside Patio de Las Palmeras was suddenly full of exalted fans chanting terrace songs for their idol. Border Guards were ready to evict them but were ordered to stay in place, while military personnel encircled the fans in a small sector of the patio. A few minutes later, they opened the door for them to exit the premises, but the chaos led to a column bust of former president Hipólito Yrigoyen being knocked down, though remaining mostly unscathed.

Who takes the blame?

The President called a meeting with Cabinet Chief Santiago Cafiero, De Pedro and Security Minister Sabina Frederic, while Máximo Kirchner joined by phone insisting that the ceremony should be extended, as things were only getting worse outside.

The Interior and Security ministries pointed at the Metropolitan police for shooting at a group of fans, publicly demanding them to “stop attacking those who want to say farewell to Maradona”. The organization of the event was controlled by the Presidency, but the streets are under Metropolitan police jurisdiction.

Back in the patio, a government secretary lamented the events of the day. “The problem was accepting to have a short wake. If we offered the Casa Rosada to his relatives, we should have made it conditional on them accepting the requirements of a State funeral, lasting as many days as it needed to. It was a mistake,” he admitted, speaking with Letra P. A confidant of the presidents had similar arguments, saying politicians should have taken over the situation even if that caused friction with the Maradona family.

With chaos ongoing in the street, the casket was moved from the Hall and the main Balcarce 50 door never re-opened. The President awaited for a final family decision, which ultimately led to the wake’s abrupt ending. Cleaning staff picked up the enormous amount of gifts, flowers, shirts and flags left in the Latin American Patriots Hall, while the family gave an intimate last goodbye at the nearby Native Peoples’ Hall.

“The goal of the national government was always to facilitate a pacific goodbye to Diego, knowing that everyone in Argentina and many in the world are shocked by the news of his passing,” the government said in a press release. By 5:30, the procession towards the Bella Vista cemetery began, with hundreds of thousands of fans still crying near Casa Rosada.

(Spanish version originally published in Letra P)