MADRID - Spaniards flocked to pay homage on Tuesday to Real Madrid legend Alfredo Di Stefano, one of the world's greatest footballers who inspired millions of fans during the isolation of the Franco era.
Hundreds of people queued around the block by the towering walls of the club's Santiago Bernabeu stadium where Di Stefano's body lay in state, a day after he died following a heart attack, aged 88.
Inside, mourners bowed and crossed themselves as they passed in front of his coffin, which was draped with a white Real Madrid flag.
The numerous silver trophies he helped the team win were lined up nearby.
Among Tuesday's mourners, Real Madrid's captain Iker Casillas embraced members of the former player's family, who sat dressed in black in front of big garlands of white flowers.
Known as "the Blonde Arrow", Di Stefano was a hero of the all-conquering Real sides of the 1950s and 1960s.
Following tributes from sportsmen around the world as well as the Spanish government and royal family, the press called him a "genius", a "legend" and a "complete player".
Fans fondly remembered the man who transformed their club into one of the most successful sides in the world.
"I feel cut up. He was the greatest," said Javier Lopez, 28, waiting in the queue at the stadium in a white Real Madrid shirt, with a tattoo of the club's shield on his arm.
"If it wasn't for this man, Real Madrid would be nothing. He defended, he directed play and he scored goals."
'A legend forever'
Di Stefano had gone into a coma after suffering a heart attack on Saturday. He died on Monday at 5:15 pm at the Gregorio Maranon hospital, Real Madrid said in a statement.
"He has left us, but his legend will live forever," Real Madrid chairman Florentino Perez told a news conference on Monday evening.
On Tuesday, leading Madrid sports daily Marca left its cover all white except for a small black-and-white photograph showing the back of a departing Di Stefano wearing his number 9 shirt, his hand waving.
It urged Real Madrid to withdraw the number 9 shirt in Di Stefano's "eternal honour".
The director of rival sports daily AS, Alfredo Relano, said Di Stefano's exploits on foreign football fields gave Spain pride in the 1950s, during the dictatorship of General Francisco Franco.
"In the poor, isolated, aged and introverted Spain of the second half of the 1950s, there was something to hang on to: Real Madrid, the European Cup, those remote games in Belgrade, Vienna, Brussels, Glasgow," Relano said.
"The old, strong and prestigious Europe only bowed to us if Real Madrid was there. And Di Stefano." Leading daily El Pais declared on its front-page: "The genius of football dies" above a black-and-white picture of Di Stefano, leaping into the air with his arms raised after scoring in the semifinals of the 1958 European Cup.
"Alfredo Di Stefano was a timeless player for all times, for eternity," the paper said.
Queueing patiently outside the Bernabeu, 86-year-old Jose Luis Saura said he worked at the club for decades and remembered Di Stefano celebrating with staff after winning the Spanish league in 1954 in his first season with Real.
"I got on well with him, as a player and as a person," Saura told AFP. "He was friendly to everyone."