The world-renowned sports doctor responsible for rehabilitating Diego Maradona recalls bringing the “golden boy” back to fighting form.
The whir of a helicopter interrupts casual chatter on a sprawling property outside Buenos Aires. Amid swimming pools, tennis courts, and a fullsize football field, the chopper makes a careful landing. Aboard is fresh cake from the Argentine capital’s best bakery. Desert for Diego Maradona and his friends. It is one anecdote of many about the football superstar remembered by Waldemar Jan Matuszewski, a doctor focused on rehabilitation of neuromuscular and musculoskeletal disorders particularly related to sport injuries. Reputed worldwide as an advanced rehabilitation specialist for battered bodies, he had traveled to Argentina with Maradona to ensure his success, and football’s golden boy pulled out all the stops to thank him.
“Diego came to my rehabilitation clinic in Ottawa in June 1997 with an entourage of coaches, his manager, and trainer, and severe neuromuscular problems,” recalls Matuszewski. After several weeks of intensive rehabilitation therapy, working eight hours a day, Maradona returned to his full physical form. “His strength and condition were proven by the results of speed training with my other patient, Canadian gold Olympic medalist Ben Johnson, at the Ottawa and Toronto stadiums. Diego was extremely happy with the result of my treatments and asked me to join him in Argentina to continue the preparations for his games.” The doctor recalls arriving in Buenos Aires airport with Maradona and being greeted by a huge crowd of journalists and fans. Argentina broadcast Maradona’s progress daily, with the entire country tuning in to follow his return to the field. “In his first official game following his neuromuscular injury, Diego achieved great success and as a result, he returned to the National Argentine Professional Football Team,” Matuszewski says. “Both of our successes were celebrated at his birthday party with some 1 500 guests, followed by a visit to President Carlos Menem at the Presidential Palace, where I was awarded for my achievement and success with Diego,” Matuszewski recalls. “Diego lived a life of boisterous excess. He was disciplined with his training, however he was very self-confident and arrogant to his coaches and managers. In his private life he was generous and sweet – a tempered host, very nice all the time and warm with people.”
Matuszewski was born in 1946 in Warsaw, Poland. The son of a decorated lieutenant, he was involved in sport at a young age. A biking and swimming athlete, Matuszewski was trained by Olympic runner Zbigniew Makomaski. After graduating from the Academy of Physical Education, Warsaw, he began working as a rehabilitation specialist and served as an assistant professor of medicine. By 1978, he was the manager of the Rehabilitation Department of the Polish Olympic association, implementing professional development programs for the enhancement of athletes’ performances, and methods and techniques of rehabilitation therapy in neuromuscular disorders. He worked with the Polish Olympic Soccer Team during its glory era from 1970 to 1982, when it was among the best teams in the world, finishing third at two World Cups and earning a gold medal at the 1972 Olympics in Munich. “One of the best players, Wlodzimierz Lubanski, was seriously injured,” remembers the doctor. “I worked with him for several weeks and thanks to my treatments, he returned to the field.” Consequently, one Polish magazine dubbed the doctor “golden hands.”
In 1981, Matuszewski left Poland for Iraq, where he consulted for the Iraqi national football team and served as the manager of the department of physiotherapy and rehabilitation in the General Hospital, Baghdad. “While not easy, my time in Iraq was wonderful because I had a chance to experience a different and very interesting culture,” he recalls. “The members of the team were disciplined and eager to learn and to absorb my knowledge and experience.” The transition was made easier due to his efforts to learn conversational Arabic, and several Iraqi friends who generously welcomed him into society. One friend was the late painter Fayek Hassan, whose horses decorated Iraq money. “We spent a lot of time together and with other Iraqis discussing and traveling across the country. When my posting came to an end, Fayek gave us the souvenir of his autoportrait [self-portrait]. When he asked me what to give to my wife, I asked him to paint her portrait, which he did. This was very touching and made me almost cry, because he was very popular and he had many customers waiting a long time to buy his paintings.”
Following three years in Iraq, Matuszewski moved to Canada. “There, I was the innovator of changing the training program to implement warmup and stretching before, during, and after training, to make the muscles and tendons more flexible; as well as the innovator of changing the training program for single periodization,” he recounts. During a seminar at York University in Toronto, he was offered the position of Rehabilitation and Regeneration Expert by the Canadian national and Olympic track and field team, becoming responsible for athletes like Ben Johnson, Donovan Bailey, and Angella Issajenko. He also helped Canadian Olympic boxing medalist Egerton Marcus and even served the Chicago Bulls American basketball team. Italian Olympic sprinter Pierfrancesco Pavoni offered the doctor a rehabilitation clinic in Rome to implement his experience and knowledge to the Italian Olympic track and field team, but he declined due to his commitment to the Canadian athletes, and ultimately, his decision led to him working for Maradona. Sometimes, Matuszewski’s periods with Maradona spilled outside of the doctor’s rehabilitation clinic and into luxury boutiques. “I assisted Diego when he went shopping at Holt Renfrew in Ottawa,” he recalls. “Diego took the downtown store by storm. He spent over two hours bouncing about. He bought some 40 items, valued at thousands of dollars, signed dozens of autographs, and true to his reputation – flirted with countless women. A salesman commented that he was like the Tasmanian devil. Even he had a hard time keeping pace with the credit card-waving Maradona. He buzzed around the store and made everyone’s day, including mine.” Matuszewski recalls Maradona looking at small, tight-fitting shirts and size 40 short jackets, and picking up a pair of Versace jeans and a Canali sports coat. He also purchased a transparent Calvin Klein shirt and Armani sunglasses. “He didn’t even look at the prices,” shares the doctor, smiling at the memory. “He liked everything really tight, almost spray-painted on. He wanted to be famous in Ottawa. Later, he gave all these items to his friends.”
While Matuszewski worked successfully with many world-class athletes across a wide range of sports, he considers that he treated them all equally. “I was proud that I was able to help Diego, one of the greatest football players of all time. If I didn’t know that I could help him, I never would have started working with him,” he says. “I was very sorry that Diego died, because he was an icon and a legend, and it was a great pleasure to watch his games. However, due to his drug problem, he was very difficult to the people around him.” Maradona was a self-proclaimed addict for decades. “I cannot judge anybody, because I do not know the real truth of his death,” says Matuszewski, continuing that the use of drugs to enhance performance in sport is considered unethical and prohibited by most sports organizations including the International Olympic Committee. “In my opinion, we cannot talk about unethical things; we should talk about how harmful doping is for athletes and the health risks,” he offers. “Different kinds of doping have been used since competitive sport was created and exist until now. Moreover, there is probably (I just assume) competition within the creation of new, enhancing drugs that cannot be detected.” He asserts that while greed and ambition will forever coexist on the playing field, these newer drugs are increasingly dangerous to athletes’ health.
Originally published in the Fall/Winter 2022 issue of Vogue Man Arabia