Thousands pay tribute to Puerta at Sevilla stadium

August 29, 2007

MADRID, Aug 29 (Reuters) - Thousands of football fans thronged the streets around Sevilla's Sanchez Pizjuan stadium on Wednesday to pay their last respects to Antonio Puerta, who died three days after collapsing during a league match at the weekend.

The 22-year-old's body was taken to the stadium shortly after midnight local time where over 10,000 fans had gathered during the evening.

The coffin, draped in the club's centenary banner and Spanish national flag, was taken into the stadium to the accompaniment of spontaneous applause and chants of "Puerta amigo, Sevilla esta contigo" (Puerta friend, Sevilla is with you).

Sevilla fans placed prayer candles and tributes at the stadium doors, while lengthy queues formed to file past the coffin to pay their last respects to the talented young player.

Many supporters of Sevilla's fierce city rivals Real Betis were among those who had come to pay tribute to Puerta, who was born in the city's working class district of Triana.

Puerta's team mates went directly to the stadium from the airport after returning from Athens where their Champions League match against AEK had been postponed because of his death.

Accompanied by club president Jose Maria del Nido, they filed past the fans in silence and remained with the player's family until 5am local time.

Puerta's girlfriend Mar is due to give birth to a son in October.

The family announced that Puerta would be buried at 1400 local time (1200 GMT) in the city's San Fernando cemetery.

Messages of condolence arrived from football clubs all over Spain and Europe, while AC Milan, Sevilla's opponents in Friday's European Super Cup final, have offered to postpone the game if the club wishes.

Real Madrid cancelled Wednesday's pre-season friendly against Sporting Lisbon, while Barcelona have said they will give 10 percent of the gate money from their game against Inter Milan to research into cardiovascular illness.

Puerta, who won back-to-back UEFA Cups and the King's Cup with Sevilla, collapsed after jogging back towards his own goal 35 minutes into Saturday's game against Getafe.

Although he was able to walk off the pitch he collapsed again in the changing rooms and had to be given cardiac resuscitation before being taken to hospital.

He was treated in the hospital's intensive care unit but was unable to recover from the after-effects of several prolonged cardiac arrests.

Medical experts consulted by the Spanish media said that the collapse was precipitated by a weakness in the right ventricle of the player's heart that can cause arrhythmias.

They said that even though the player was reported to have fainted on two previous occasions, the problem was extremely difficult to detect and was unlikely to show up in medical tests.

It is not the first time a Sevilla player has died after collapsing on the pitch.

Striker Pedro Berruezo died as a result of a heart ailment when he collapsed during a second division match against Pontevedra in 1973 at the age of 27.

Berruezo's wife was pregnant at the time and her son, Pedro, is now a professional footballer with Segunda B side (third division) Ceuta.