Chinese fans mourn Maradona

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An employee of the Argentine embassy in China sets a table for a memorial to soccer legend Diego Maradona at the embassy in Beijing on Thursday. Fans visited the embassy to pay tribute to Maradona, one of the greatest soccer players of all time. WEI XIAOHAO/CHINA DAILY

The death of soccer legend Diego Maradona has drawn an outpouring of shock and grief from the sports community and beyond in China, where the Argentine star was considered an inspiration for generations of soccer enthusiasts.

Maradona, who turned 60 on Oct 30, died of a heart attack at home in Buenos Aires on Wednesday while he was recovering from surgery to remove a blood clot from his brain earlier this month.

His death triggered widespread sorrow in China on Thursday, with fans, commentators and sports celebrities leaving emotional messages on the hashtag "Maradona has passed". It had been viewed 1.3 billion times as of Thursday afternoon and stood among the top trending topics on the Chinese social media platform Weibo.

"As the best soccer player in the 20th century and a World Cup winner, Diego Maradona made a tremendous contribution to the world's soccer development. He brought unforgettable memories to Chinese soccer fans," the Chinese Football Association said in a statement released on Thursday.

"The death of Maradona brought huge sorrow to all who love the sport of soccer. High respect for Maradona and his glorious career."

Regarded as one of the sport's greatest players of all time, Maradona had a storied career. He was perhaps best remembered for twice scoring dramatically against England in the 1986 World Cup quarterfinal. The first of these was the controversial "Hand of God" goal, where he used his fist before improvising remarkable solo dribbling past multiple England defenders to find the net. He led Argentina all the way to win the coveted FIFA trophy.

Maradona also had a glittering club career, playing for clubs such as Barcelona in the Spanish La Liga, Napoli in the Italian Serie A and Boca Juniors in his native Argentine league.

He visited China for the first time in 1996 to play against Beijing Guoan for the Boca Juniors in an international friendly match that attracted tens of thousands of Chinese fans to watch him play at the Workers' Stadium. In 2003, after his retirement, Maradona visited China a second time, having his photo taken on the Great Wall.

He returned to China in 2008 to witness Argentina and Lionel Messi grab gold at the Beijing Olympics. Two years later, he once again visited China to attend a 10-day charity tour.

Maradona expressed high hopes for Chinese soccer's development on multiple occasions. He urged Chinese youngsters to "seize the opportunity of training in Argentina and draw more experience from the Boca Juniors' youth program to help develop the game in China", in a July 2014 China Central Television interview while visiting a training camp involving Chinese players at Boca's base in Buenos Aires.

He encouraged China to keep investing in the game to return to the World Cup Finals to match its status as one of the world's strongest economies.

"Now I realize that Maradona went beyond soccer. He's a global icon of passion, happiness and the spirit of fighting against the odds. Many people can find the spirit of what Maradona stands for in themselves," Chinese sports reporter Miao Yuan said on his social media account.

"In a time when we have mass production of all kinds of idols, I miss Maradona even more. It's lucky for us and the world soccer community to have had a player like Maradona."

Many Team China and Chinese Super League players and coaches shared their feelings about the legend's death. Former Chinese international Fan Zhiyi posted a photo of Maradona celebrating after winning the World Cup with the note, "Farewell, Maradona".

CSL side Dalian Pro head coach Rafa Benitez said on social media: "Sad news for football today. I will never forget so many afternoons of glory. Rest in peace, Diego. Legend."

Guangzhou Evergrande head coach Fabio Cannavaro and Shanghai SIPG's Brazilian star Givanildo Vieira de Sousa, known as Hulk, also posted Maradona's photo on social media to honor the legend.

Another trending topic on Chinese social media on Thursday was "Fathers' reaction after Maradona's death". Fans shared their fathers' stories of watching Maradona's matches decades ago and how their fathers' passion for Maradona and soccer influenced them. Many fans commented online that their fathers fell silent or even cried after learning the sad news.

"I was 22 when the 1990 World Cup was held. My arm was accidentally cut by glass when my classmates and I were trying to find seats in front of a TV to watch Argentina's match," said sports commentator Su Qun, sharing his memory of Maradona on social media.

"There's still a scar on my arm. My friends said that it's a scar of true love. Maradona will be in my memory forever. Sports and life bring us happiness as well as sorrow."

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