Kickabouts in Cuba with Diego Maradona

“I’ve always chafed at the comparisons between the two countries.” After four years of friendship that has impacted our lives in ways we couldn’t have predicted, Andy Cawthorne is ready to talk to me on record about Venezuela and Cuba. If there is anyone outside the professional political—and, of course, football—sphere qualified to comment, it’s Andy. Four years living in Cuba. Nine years as Reuters’ Bureau Chief for the Andean Region. Ten years living in Venezuela. “The differences are so enormous…it’s a false comparison.”

It’s almost criminally easy to overlook how remarkable the life of a foreign correspondent can be, and almost criminally easy to persecute them for it. Cawthorne has dined with Fidel Castro, sat through record-breaking speeches from Hugo Chavez and then been invited to join him for more, and has passed Diego Maradona cigars over a barbeque. For a time, these colossal figures of modern Latin American history were their own ‘axis of evil’ in the eyes of many.

Cuba, Venezuela, Diego Maradona, Hugo Chavez, Fidel Castro, journalism, British, football, culture, politics, kickabouts, history
Credit: Andy Cawthorne

Some might wonder where an Argentine fits into a discussion on Cuba and Venezuela—or at least where a second one does. To others it is obvious. To Cawthorne it was obvious and it was personal.

He finally joined the Reuters staff on a permanent basis in 1994 after freelancing in Panama. The stringer from Stoke had first become a Caracas correspondent, renting a bedroom in a colleague’s apartment while his local currency salary gyrated with more fluidity than a reggaeton dancer, and then a Cuban one. Two years into his four-year stay in Havana, Cawthorne got news that 1986 World Cup winner Diego Maradona was en route to Havana to fight his drink and drug addiction head on and hand-in-hand with Cuba’s self-vaunted healthcare system.

“Maradona just dropped on us,” Cawthorne tells me, “in the most extraordinary way. In his multiple bouts of ill-health and addiction, I think he’d nearly killed himself and had ended up in a clinic in Uruguay or Argentina. There was this circus around him everywhere he went.

“So he and his coterie, which included Guillermo Coppola, decided to bring him to Cuba. He was guaranteed more privacy in Cuba…and it was a win-win for the Cuban government as well: they’d get good publicity from Maradona who was very left-wing, pro-Castro, pro-Chavez, and great for Cuba who would get a chance to tout their health system. It looked like a good arrangement all-round, but of course it was a massive global story. So the few of us foreign correspondents in Havana tried to do a paparazzi job on him.”

It backfired spectacularly.

The saving grace was a cameraman colleague of Cawthorne’s, Alfredo Tedeschi. An Argentine. Or rather it was Senora Tedeschi. But before that were the scenes of a rotund and blemished Maradona chasing Cawthorne and co. out of a Havana supermarket and into the parking lot where the Hand of God screwed up into a fist once more and started punching through the car window of a bewildered English journalist.

It marked the start of what Cawthorne now calls a “golden period” in his life, where weekly kickabouts with El Diez bookended formal dinners that ended as informal morning afters with El Comandante. But it took two Argentine matriarchs to kickstart it.

“Soon after Maradona had chased us, Alfredo’s wife bumped into Diego’s wife [Claudia] in the gym. As they were chatting, what had happened at the supermarket came up and Claudia invited Alfredo and his family round for dinner as an apology.”

And so it began. Argentine barbeques, Saturday nights that became Sunday mornings, and the dark and light of Diego that came with it—a trait the Argentine shared with the Cuban and Venezuelan protagonists of this vignette.

“To this day, I don’t know how drugs were getting into a country like Cuba,” Cawthorne confided, “but someone was getting them to Diego. I was there one morning and he just wouldn’t wake. And then we got the call that Fidel was on his way over to meet him.”

That morning would become the day Diego Maradona rolled up his trousers at Revolution Palace to show Fidel Castro his iconic left leg, scorer of many of his 345 goals. On it was a tattoo of Castro himself. But it began with cartoon scenes of buckets of water being thrown onto the face of a comatose Maradona. “It was the only way we could wake him.”

The smashed car window, the drug-induced semi-unconscious states, the times Maradona would use his satellite phone to call the TV stations in Argentina airing the games of his beloved Boca Juniors to tell them to turn the cameras onto his family just to show off his power to the journalists collected in Havana to be in his presence. The dark.

Asking after Cawthorne’s beloved Stoke City, inviting him over for countless lavish meals, diving naked into Alfredo’s pool for everyone’s amusement, and volleying on the turn from the halfway line to score in Cuba’s national stadium for what was just a kickabout with friends and journalists that Cawthorne feels forever lucky to have been a part of. The light.

“Coppola once pulled me aside and said, ‘Andy, what are you doing?! Diego’s not fit, don’t go in so hard,’ but what are you supposed to do when you’re playing with Maradona? He still had it. He still celebrated every goal like it was the World Cup again. He was using those games to get fit for Lothar Matthaus’ testimonial in Munich.”

Cuba, Venezuela, Diego Maradona, Hugo Chavez, Fidel Castro, journalism, British, football, culture, politics, kickabouts, history
Credit: Andy Cawthorne

Eventually the kickabouts came to a natural end. Alfredo returned to Buenos Aires after his Reuters posting, Maradona followed suit a year later with his fight against drugs not over, and Cawthorne and his wife, Euridice, returned to Venezuela for her to give birth to their first-born, Oliver, now a professional footballer in his own right.

Headline hunting and breaking news dragged Cawthorne around continents throughout the 2000s, from Haiti to Kenya, London to Iraq, and eventually back to Venezuela, where countless conversations with the Cuban Comandante would place him in good stead for the one in Caracas.

“They both have immense charisma that is very hard not to get sucked into,” he admits, “you have to be careful. They were identical. ‘Andy, how are the England football team doing?’ They would both answer a question with an off-topic, disarming question. Or their replies would be so long, historical lectures, to lose you again. Chavez was extremely egotistical, and a ladies man who would gravitate to the female foreign reporters.”

So long were many of the speeches of Castro and Chavez that the length itself became the news story, Cawthorne jokes. “One time I got told off for reading an Eliot book during one of Castro’s monologues.” I wonder silently if it was The Hollow Men

“I wasn’t being disrespectful. I had listened to him so much and so often, I could do both. When he said something interesting, my ears would perk. Not to be cliched, but I was witness to history in the presence of these extraordinary people, but people who have a lot to answer for.” Perhaps it wasn’t.

While the two strongmen had plenty in common, “identical,” as Cawthorne reckons, the countries are not. And it is something that not only irritated the journalist but was so hard for him to talk about.

“They both had hard-left governments,” he says of his time in the respective Caribbean countries, “but they’re enormously different societies: Cuba is tightly disciplined and rigidly controlled; Venezuelan society is far more libertarian, anarchic, and less likely to accept authority. Cuba’s government was founded on much more purer socialist and communist ideals. I think [the comparison] is more resentment and scapegoating by understandably angry Venezuelans. But look at both nations separately.”

It’s a hard ask. Countries are so often distilled into a microcosm defined by what they are most visible by. For these two 21st century outcasts, it is their governments. Behind it, hundreds of equally worthy narratives are lost, thousands of individual stories, and millions of faces. Perhaps the easiest way to frame this almost umbilical link between the two without diving and delving into policy and economic schemes each have participated in to the benefit of the other is to see it as a marriage of political convenience between two characters, not two countries.

Although the footballing highlight of Cawthorne’s time in Latin America was his unrivaled games with Maradona, events both men had their friends fly to Cuba to play in, he was also well-positioned but not always well aware to pass judgement on the sport’s culture in his respective homes away from home. 

“The first time round, there was nothing making me want to go to games,” Cawthorne says of the 1994/95 season. This was despite capital giants Caracas Futbol Club enjoying a spell of domestic dominance and even some rare continental clout. He doesn’t recall hearing much about the local football scene at all, not in the newspapers nor on the radio. He does, however, remember heading to an upmarket district of the capital, Las Mercedes, for the 1994 World Cup Final between Brazil and Italy, a dour 0-0 affair settled on penalties in favour of Venezuela’s bordering neighbour.

“Everyone had Brazil flags! They were being waved and people were dancing and pouring out into the street with beers. But then down a side street there were trucks with their backs full of Italy flags,” Andy quips with a wry smile and dry laugh. “They were ready for either team to win—and I found that quite insightful, the Venezuelans just wanted an excuse to party.”

Closer to home, Caracas Futbol Club were doing the domestic double of the 1993/94 Primera Division and the 1994 Copa Venezuela, a feat they wouldn’t repeat until Cawthorne was back living in Venezuela in 2009. In 1995, the year he left, they followed up their success at home with a run to the Round of 16 in the Copa Libertadores. Similarly, they wouldn’t better that achievement until—again—2009. Los Rojos’ best years were going on around Cawthorne and, regrettably as he admits, he was none the wiser.

“Sporting wise, Venezuelan football is on a fantastic trajectory,” Cawthorne says. It took the advances of the national team under Dr. Richard Paez (2001-2007), continued under Cesar Farias (2007-2013), to ignite his interest, just as it did for the Venezuelan population.

“I was actually back in Cuba visiting friends when Venezuela lost to Paraguay on penalties [in the 2011 Copa America Semi Final]. That was the groundswell of interest, passion, and talent. I think we can now call it a footballing nation.”

During Cawthorne’s second stint in Venezuela, which lasted from 2009 to 2018, it was through the lens of his son that he saw football. He remembers blaspheming, profanity-laden coaches either screaming in the faces of their young charges or celebrating like Maradona once did, fists clenched, bounding with joy—but all because a 10 year old had stuck it in the back of the net, not them.

“The boys loved it, though, they absolutely loved it. Tony, one of Oliver’s first coaches, is no longer with us but he was typical of what all the coaches were like.”

Oliver stuck out, too. Nicknamed ‘catire’, Venezuelan slang for ‘blondie’, he would grow to be 197cm (6’7”) in a country where the average height is 173cm (5’8”). In 2021, Oliver signed his first professional football contract. The club was Carabobo FC, just under 200 kilometres from where he grew up playing on the artificial courts of Caracas. 

An unexpected full-circle moment for father and son was still to come. Shortly after Cawthorne bowed out of foreign correspondency and returned to England to live on a full-time basis for the first time since the early 1990s, Oliver made his professional debut in the country where his father’s international journalism career began: Panama.

After 18 months with Carabobo, where he was captain of the U23s, Oliver moved to the Panamanian Primera Division, first playing for Potros del Este and now Alianza FC.

Cuba, Venezuela, Diego Maradona, Hugo Chavez, Fidel Castro, journalism, British, football, culture, politics, kickabouts, history
Artwork by Charbak Dipta

Of course, all three of the main protagonists of Cawthorne’s recollections are dead and their countries are once more at turning points: Maradona’s Argentina have a recently elected president promising wholesale changes to the economy and governmental reach; Chavez’s Venezuela is in its 11th year of being Maduro’s Venezuela and is in an election year; and Cuba, amid frequent protesting, are nearly five years into its first non-Castro presidency since 1959.

Amid talk of Maradona, Castro, and Chavez, I had forgotten to ask Cawthorne about Cuban football. “There’s no intelligent comparison to be made there,” he tells me, echoing the countries at large.

He later told me that the book he was reading during a Castro press conference was by George Eliot, not T.S.: Middlemarch. Among its themes? Idealism, self-interest, religion, and political reform.

Jordan Florit

Jordan is an insatiable reader, as well as a writer. He reads and writes about Latin America, politics, psychology, sociology and psychology. He is the author of "Red Wine and Arepas: How Football is Becoming Venezuela’s Religion".