The best athlete of Latin America in 1986
The two most famous goals in history, scored at the Aztec stadium of Mexico City that June 22, 1986, are still fresh in the memory of people. They were goals with names of their own: The Hand of God and the Goal of the Century. It was at the quarter finals of the World Cup. Argentina played against England.
Both goals would have been unthinkable without an exceptional star. Short, with the face of a naughty boy, huge in his sports height: “Pelusa”, the “Golden Boy”, or just by his regular name: Diego Armando Maradona.
A week later, Argentina would get the second, and so far, last World Cup title facing a German team, always precise, always dangerous.
The News Agency Prensa Latina selects the best athletes in Latin America every year through a survey to all sports journalists from all over the continent. There are hundreds of applicants, dozens of sports. The best is selected out of all winners in their corresponding sports, which usually generates obvious opinions and controversy. There was no objection in the 1987 vote.
“Pelusa” arrived in Cuba on July 23rd, 1987 to receive the Award for Best Athlete of Latin America in 1986.
Love at first sight
According to himself, and despite all the myth around Cuba, during that first visit in 1987 he could not imagine that it would be the beginning of his idyll with the largest of the Caribbean islands, something that remains the same to this day.
Since the first moment he set foot on Cuban soil, Maradona fell in love with the kindness and the warmth of its people. And little by little he got to know the culinary treats and beauties of this land that made him feel so at ease, quite like home.
In that first visit, he started his friendship with the leader of the Cuban Revolution Fidel Castro, and also with many athletes, journalists and unrivaled musicians to whom he was always kind and attentive. Most of all, his friendship with the humble inhabitants of the island that was not limited to autograph signing and greetings from a moving car, they would bring him back to his great stature, that of a person of the people.
The intense blue of Varadero
As part of the activities planned by Prensa Latina, organizer of the Award, there was a visit to Varadero beach, located less than two hours from Havana city.
The “50 year-old” buildings from Vedado were left behind while the car rolled through the seaside wall (Malecón) of so many poets and, to the left, he could see the curious architecture of Morro Castle just before disappearing as he went into a tunnel and find it again at the other side of the bay.
He entered the beautiful and historic coast of the province of Matanzas and, in half an hour, he was welcomed by the eight letters of the word Varadero, as if they were planted on the ground. Neither the Cubans nor the international fame of the beach deceived him. Many truths impressed the star football player. Since he saw the calm waters and the different shades of blue, he fell in love with the place.
His “marriage” to Varadero would be “forever”. He could not believe that the crystal and warm waters of that beach remained the same almost the whole year, as the locals assured. He would have the chance to confirm this many times.
Maradona spent several days in the island and enjoyed its natural beauties with his family. Then, his love affair with delicious tropical dishes he’d barely heard of began.
He also showed interest in helping with the development of football in Cuba, a sports activity that, despite its poor international presence, it’s practiced in the largest of the Antilles since 1911. It was quite a discovery.
That’s how he said good-bye to Cuba in 1987, promising he would come back.
The second and longest visit
The second time Maradona was officially in Cuba was to get treatment for his addiction, which had endangered his life.
As he knew about the advances and the quality of the Cuban medical services, and its prime place within Health Tourism, the “Golden Boy” did not hesitate to choose the Cuban capital to get the treatment he needed. He came back to Cuba on January 19th, 2000.
His physical condition was disturbing, especially because of the overweight and a severe heart condition, medical reports from South America were not encouraging.
There was an ambulance waiting at the airport runaway. He was taken straight to a diagnostic medical center where several medical tests were made.
A few days later he was transferred to Las Praderas, a rehabilitation institution that is part of the widespread plan for Health Tourism developed in Cuba.
He was never forbidden to get in touch with the general population, and so he began to have closer and deeper relations with people of the city, getting to know their lights and shadows, joys and worries. Once again, the human being won the battle.
Since his doctors considered that swimming and breathing air that would charge his energies for losing weight and improving his heart condition a very positive activity, once a week he went to Varadero beach. Of course!!
As months went by, you could see a different Maradona, with a weight close to normal and a much more positive mood.
His visits to the restaurant El Aljibe in the municipality of Playa, in Havana city, became frequent.
“The Golden Boy” was less than a kilometer from the ocean there, he breathed the breeze and enjoyed, in the middle of the city, the quietness of a country side atmosphere.
El Aljibe is well-known by its specialty in sauces for chicken and pork, and most of all, the black beans (thickly cooked). All recipes there are supposed to be a family secret.
Workers of the restaurant say they enjoyed to see how this star loved the tasty delicacies they serve at the place. They say he used to combine the food with some wine from their Cava. The advantage: there was a lack of Argentinian wines, not accessible in Cuba at the time, but it was not hard to find good Spanish and Italian wines that, for sure, he knew by heart.
Around that time, his visits to the Nacional Hotel, located in Vedado, right across the Havana seaside wall (Malecón), became more frequent as well.
He spent hours getting to know the history of the place that had been visited by many personalities since the 30s: boxer Rocky Marciano, swimmer Johnny Weissmuller -who played Tarzán- baseball player Mickey Mantle and other great athletes like him. But, there were others like scientist Alexander Fleming, writers Ernest Hemingway, Jean Paul Sartre and Rómulo Gallegos, actors Marlon Brando, Ava Gardner, Errol Flynn, Libertad Lamarque, the famous crooner Nat “King” Cole and many others.
Even the one and only Winston Churchill stayed there in 1946 and had a taste of the famous Cuban cigars with the matchless ocean view and the Havana seaside wall (Malecón).
Maradona got very excited with these stories, and we can’t tell for sure if his passion for cigars started with the story of the famous British politician.
Our first meet
During a football match of the Cuban Football Team on its way to the World Cup in Japan and South Korea 2002, Maradona went to the Pedro Marrero Stadium to support the three-colored team.
As I had been assigned by the Cuban TV to cover the game, we met him there. In a brief interview he told us he liked the physical condition of the team and finished our talk with the following phrase: “Use me, I am entirely at the service of the Cuban football, use me”.
Later on, in 2001, during the awards ceremony for the best Latin American athletes of 2000, “El Pelusa” was the guest of honor to the gala celebrated at the Nacional Hotel.
He was in a very good mood, he arrived smiling and with a lot of energy. He looked happy and relaxed.
It was a special day, Maradona talked about pretty much everything and was interested in many things. He even asked about the blue marlin in the Sirena Bar of the hotel, donated by Hemingway, another passionate of Cuban cigars.
He congratulated María Isabel Urrutia, the Colombian weightlifter who was Olympic Champion at Sydney 2000, selected as the Best Athlete in Latin America in 2000.
He spoke of his first visit to Cuba, his first meeting with Fidel, the World Cup of 1987, the beauties of this Caribbean island, and he got pictures with all those attending the event. It was an unforgettable day.
World Cup and football match
We did not meet again until 2014. I was working for the Multinational Television Channel Telesur during the Football World Cup of Brazil 2014, and Diego would present the show De Zurda with the outstanding journalist Victor Hugo Morales for the same TV station.
The day before the World Cup started, we met in Barra de Tijuca. In a small football field Maradona played with the whole staff. It was a very nice environment.
He did not run anymore, of course, but his left foot was still precise and intact, and he stood out because of it.
At the end, I approached him and told him: “I am Cuban and I am here with Telesur, like you, I bring a gift from the Cubans”. I thought he would not recognize me after so long, but he remembered, he said hi and told me: “If it is from Cuba, it will surely be something good and with a lot of tenderness”. I said: “Of course!”
A friend had given me a cigar specially rolled for him. I said: “This is from some Cuban friends”, as my friend had told me so.
He smiled and said: “Take a look at the show today.”
On De Zurda of that day Diego thanked the people of Cuba for the cigar, and showed images of him smoking it in front of the ocean, as he liked doing at the Nacional Hotel and in Varadero beach.
At the end of the show, we met and told me: “You see? I never forget Cubans. I will always be grateful to them”, then he smiled.
Our last meet to this day
In January 2015, a new season for De Zurda started, and the production team invited me because Diego and Victor Hugo wanted to chat with me.
I was among the people who welcomed him at the International Airport José Martí, we received him at the VIP lounge and he was in a good mood. He said: “Well, you know, when I get out of here I want a Cuban cigar, it seemed it was to get used to the island.”
The show would happen in a few days, and Maradona had to check some materials with the staff first. I did not get the details, but I did learn he “escaped” to Varadero in his free time. The temptation of being less than two hours away was too strong.
On the day of the show, I had no idea what they would ask me, so I went there expectant.
As it turned out, Maradona and Victor Hugo had listened to my narration of the semifinal game between Cuba and Mexico at the Centro American and Caribbean Games in Veracruz 2014, and they liked my description.
It was really flattering for me to be publicly congratulated, I thanked them and we talked about other current issues related to football.
At the end of the show, still in the studio, I asked Maradona: “How are you doing with the Cuban cigar?” And he told me: “Enjoying it as always, there is no other like it, I even did a short trip to the plantations in Pinar del Río and I loved it”.
Pinar del Río is the westernmost Cuban province and, among its many attractions are the tobacco plantations, considered by many, to be the best in the world. Later I learned Diego had been in some of the most famous plantations and a tour had been arranged to show him the processes of planting, harvesting and others leading to the enjoyment of the Cuban cigar, matchless in its aroma according to the connoisseurs.
A new stage had begun for Diego in De Zurda, so he seized the opportunity to meet with his Cuban passions once more.
He came back in November 2016, this time to bid farewell to his friend Fidel Castro, who passed away on November 26 of that year.
He will come back for sure, for his bond to the largest of the Antilles is too strong and his Cuban passions have become irreplaceable.