Maradona won friends in Cuba as Castro's guest
Maradona developed a passion for golf and swiftly won friends after setting up home in Cuba.
Diego Maradona ate like a barbarian, developed such a passion for golf that he even played at night and swiftly won friends with his generosity after setting up home in Cuba four years ago.
As the former Argentina captain remained in intensive care in a Buenos Aires hospital this week with heart and breathing problems, friends on the communist-run island wished him well and recalled his sociability and sense of fun.
The former soccer great moved to Cuba in 2000 to undergo rehabilitation from cocaine abuse at a health hotel, courtesy of Cuban leader Fidel Castro, who is a great admirer.
Maradona found refuge in Cuba from adoring fans, paparazzi cameras and the drugs scandal surrounding the end of his career.
He also developed a craze for golf, frequently playing two rounds of 18 holes a day at Havana's only golf club, where members enjoyed his jovial sportsmanship.
The grossly overweight former Argentina captain had his own golf buggy -- the only one at the club -- to get around the course, often accompanied by a bodyguard.
Golfers at the formerly British-owned Rovers Athletic club said he played three rounds one day and had been seen sometimes on the links past midnight, following his ball with a flashlight.
"He was fun to play with. He always cracked jokes," said a European businessman. "When he sank a good putt, he raised his arms in the air as if he had scored another goal."
"He became a golf fanatic and even played at night with phosphorescent balls," said Gerardo Lorenzo, a chauffeur for the British Embassy who played with Maradona.
The man who led Argentina to win the 1986 World Cup improved to a handicap of 16, fellow golfers said.
"When he hit a good shot, he jumped like a child, threw the ball in the air and stopped it with his chest like a football," Lorenzo said.
Maradona enjoyed privacy living in a bungalow at Havana's La Pradera health farm, where employees said he was a generous guest who handed out presents of soccer gear, watches and prized number 10 jerseys he had worn for Argentina.
He turned up at a European ambassador's home for lunch wearing three-quarter-length trousers and a cut-off shirt showing his tattoos: an image of Argentine revolutionary Che Guevara on one shoulder and the names of his two daughters on his arms.
"He was witty and an open-minded person who followed international affairs with interest," said European Commission representative Sven Kuhn von Burgsdorff, who was at the lunch.
"He didn't hide his admiration for Cuban President Fidel Castro," added the German diplomat, who was struck by the bloated figure of the man who once dribbled through England to score his most brilliant goal in the 1986 World Cup in Mexico.
Castro invited the soccer champion to Cuba's Palace of the Revolution government house on his 41st birthday.
Maradona showed a tattoo of the bearded leader on his left leg to a chuffed Castro.
The next day Castro sent his personal assistant with one of his trademark military caps as a birthday gift, inscribed with a hand-written greeting: "For Maradona, on his 41st birthday, wishing that he may live three times longer with health and energy, Fidel Castro."
With no press hounding him, Maradona enjoyed Havana's night-life and frequented its best clubs, where he drank Moet Chandon champagne, a waiter said.
After his marriage broke up, he was frequently seen with teenage Cuban women, sometimes one on each arm.
Maradona tucked into steaks at a pool-side hotel restaurant that served Havana's best barbecued "parrillada" meat dear to his Argentine heart. "He ate like a barbarian and drank a lot, but never fell over," a waitress said.
At a private party on his birthday, Maradona dressed up as al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden holding a toy machine-gun, accompanied by his manager Guillermo Coppola draped in the robes of an Arab sheik.
Eight months after arriving in Cuba, Maradona escaped with only light bruises when he crashed head-on into a bus while driving the wrong way down a dual carriageway at night.
At Havana's golf club last week, players toasted Maradona's health. At La Pradera, employees said they hoped to see him back on the Caribbean island soon.
Even more anxious for their idol's return are the members of the veterans' soccer team he inspired -- Club Villa Fiorito, named after the Buenos Aires slum where he grew up.
The team in Guanajay, 40 kms west of Havana, play with footballs, boots and socks donated by their patron, as well as blue-and-yellow jerseys of Boca Juniors, the club where Maradona made his name more than 20 years ago.
"If he once was the Hand of God, may God not abandon him now," said club president and fellow Argentine Basilio Mazor.