BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) – The crowds that bade farewell to Diego Maradona in Buenos Aires on Thursday were in keeping with the devotion Latin America has reserved for the passing of its sporting and artistic idols, from Brazilian Formula 1 great Ayrton Senna to Colombian Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
The body of Maradona, who died from a heart attack on Wednesday, lay at the presidential palace in Buenos Aires and tens of thousands of his compatriots braved the coronavirus pandemic to pay their last respects to one of the world’s best footballers who led Argentina to victory in the 1986 World Cup.
Many more are expected to line the streets to salute the coffin as it travels to the Bella Vista cemetery on the outskirts of the capital later on Thursday.
Such public outpourings of grief are common in Latin America, where sport and the arts carry an exaggerated importance.
“I think partly there is this sense that writers and football players kind of embody the soul of nations and the Latin American continent in a way that no-one else does, certainly not political leaders,” said Laurent Dubois, a Duke University professor who writes about sport and Latin America.
“They are national figures because people feel they capture the essence of what it is to be from say Argentina or Brazil. And that is partly because they embody a sense of deep humanity, all the more because of their flawed nature.”
Catholic grieving rituals, a life lived in the warm open air, and the huge popularity of sport are additional factors, Dubois said.
When footballer Garrincha died from alcohol-induced cirrhosis in 1983, Brazil ground to a halt. Hundreds of thousands of people lined the roads to see his coffin as it travelled the 40 miles (64km) from Rio de Janeiro to his home town of Mage.
Eleven years later, there was widespread commotion after Formula 1 driver Senna was killed in an accident at the San Marino Grand Prix.
Multitudes crammed the streets of Sao Paulo to salute his coffin as it was carried through the city on the back of an open-topped fire truck.
And it is not just sports stars. Other creative artists are almost as revered.
In Uruguay, thousands turned out to say adios to poet Mario Benedetti in 2009; the streets of Mexico and Colombia were filled with grief-stricken readers of writer Garcia Marquez when he passed away in 2014; and wailing fans lined roads in the Brazilian city of Goiania in 2015 after country singer Cristiano Araujo died in a car accident.
“It is the cultural producers that make sense of the human condition, so when someone who has touched your life so that it shapes your world view you are going to go out in the street,” said Brenda Elsey, a Hofstra University professor of popular culture and politics in twentieth century Latin America.
(Reporting by Andrew Downie, editing by Ed Osmond)