A cry goes up outside the San Paolo Stadium in Naples, where since daybreak Thursday tearful mourners have been laying candles and messages for football great Diego Maradona.
“Diego, Diego, Diego!” chants the crowd which gathered where scarves and shirts in Napoli’s blue and white have been hung on the fence, transforming it into a makeshift shrine to the city’s adopted “king”.
“Hear our voices, hear our hearts,” shouts Rosario, 77, famed among fans as the stadium’s resident “poet”, as applause goes up and grown men in face masks in the team’s colours openly weep.
Buildings around the southern Italian city are adorned with depictions of the man who dragged Napoli to the top of the Italian game and became an icon for Neapolitans, whose chaotic city was feared and loathed by the rest of Italy.
Maradona played for the then-unfashionable Napoli between 1984 and 1991, after joining following an increasingly unhappy spell at Spanish glamour club Barcelona.
He also lifted the 1989 UEFA Cup, Napoli’s only European trophy. He was still Napoli’s record goalscorer until three years ago.
“He was our Sunday warrior,” 46-year old Fernando Carfora, whose apartment building sports a mural of Maradona, told AFP.
“Maradona didn’t play with his feet, he played with his head. Nobody scored Maradona’s goals,” he said.
“We couldn’t wait for him to play, (Sunday) was a day of celebration. When he wasn’t playing we were all sad.”
– ‘Captain of the angels’ –
Courted by criminals, the King of Spain and even the Pope, Maradona became a quasi-religious figure in Naples.
He brought joy to a desperately poor city blighted by bloody conflicts between the competing clans of the powerful Camorra organised crime network, one of whom Maradona would get to know well.
Maradona’s penchant for late-night parties, cocaine and women were almost as famous as his magical displays on the pitch.
But on Thursday many of the pictures and letters being left for him outside the stadium were from adoring children.
Fathers and sons performed the sign of the cross in front of blown-up photos capturing the footballing wizard as he ran wildly down the pitch after scoring, his arms raised in triumph.
Others stopped to pray in front of the red candles.
“My only wish now is to know that he is happy among the angels, maybe they wanted a captain! And he will take them to victory as only he knows how,” Giampiero said.
So deep was Maradona’s attachment to Naples that he called Napoli’s first ever league title, won a year after he led Argentina to the 1986 World Cup, the “greatest triumph” of his career.
His achievements at Napoli, who had been also-rans until he arrived in 1984, cemented his position as the greatest player of his generation and, to many observers, make him the best ever.
“I remember the Naples-Juventus game of ’86,” said local theatre actor Ciro Cocozza, 51.
“There was an explosion in the stadium when Maradona scored. There were 80,000 of us fans, and even the Juve fans were applauding,” he added.
“It was an amazing feeling”.