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Rubio Rubin's Experience of a Lifetime: Playing for Diego Maradona

The U.S. international spent time in Mexico playing under the late Argentine icon at Dorados de Sinaloa and shares tales and details of the experience.

He was on a soccer field, fittingly, when the news first came through.

“I was training with a couple of my friends from back home, getting a workout in, and I got a text from my dad,” Rubio Rubin recalled. “My phone was close enough where I could see the buzz on my phone, and it just said, 'Have you heard that Maradona has died?’ And I was kind of shocked. Wait, what? So I went to my phone and I’d already received messages from close friends as well.”

Rubin paused, like the rest of the planet. He said it took him “at least five minutes” to gather himself. It didn’t seem real. Maybe it should have, though. Diego Maradona was not a healthy man and even at 60, he’d already had a couple close calls. The Argentine icon was recovering from emergency brain surgery in early November when he suffered cardiac arrest.

But the bewilderment was real, because Maradona was no ordinary man. He’d been capable of things far beyond the reach of mere mortals, and he’d survived plenty that would’ve been the end of most. He was different. He was elevated. He seemed indestructible. They called him ‘D10S’ for heaven’s sake. Standing on that field near Portland, Ore., Rubin struggled to take it all in.

“I just couldn’t believe it,” he told Sports Illustrated. “He was doing well to recover, getting well for a better future. And it was just so sudden that he passed away. I was shocked, emotional.”

Rubin’s reaction may have had a lot in common with the rest of the world’s, but it came from a unique place in American soccer. Apart from Maradona’s brief 1994 World Cup, from which he was sent home after testing positive for ephedrine, there wasn’t much contact between the greatest player of his generation and the country that became so much more serious about soccer at around the same time. Napoli, Barcelona and Boca Juniors matches weren’t regularly televised in the USA, American players weren’t going abroad and Maradona wasn’t exactly a frequent visitor. Few Americans really knew him. None knew him like Rubin.

Their paths crossed in Culiacán, a city on the Pacific coast of Mexico that, unfortunately, has become more widely known for its place at the center of the illegal drug trade than for soccer. Maradona found his way there in September 2018 because of his more permanent, defining addiction—the game. Not content to live out his life in detached retirement, Maradona embarked on a strangely uneven coaching career, which careened from managing Argentina at the 2010 World Cup to two teams in the United Arab Emirates, and then to Dorados de Sinaloa in the Mexican second division. Rubin, who turned pro with Dutch club FC Utrecht in 2014 and was capped by Jurgen Klinsmann later that year, wound up at Dorados in early 2019 after going on loan from Club Tijuana.

The Ascenso MX may not have been Rubin’s desired destination, but his presence made sense in context. He was a 22-year-old pro on a path. But Maradona? What was this god of football doing in Culiacán? Rubin said it became apparent soon after the two started working together. Maradona simply loved the sport, and no league, team or player was beneath him.

“His motivation was just wanting to be out there each and every day, just motivated because of football,” Rubin said. “That was it. He wanted to be part of something, be part of something around soccer. Obviously he couldn’t play anymore, but he just wanted to be part of winning, that feeling of being happy and bringing a team together, and I just think that’s what drove him each and every day.”

Maradona arrived for the start of the Clausura season a couple weeks after his assistants, Rubin said, then made one change to Dorados’ starting XI ahead of a January 2019 Copa MX match at Querétaro. Rubin would make his club debut up front.

“A couple hours before the game he just looked at me and said, ‘I heard a lot of great things about you. I heard what you did in the last two weeks from my coaching staff, and they told me that you needed to start. So you better not disappoint,’” Rubin recalled. "I wasn’t nervous. I was well prepared. I had a great preseason. But to hear that from Diego—the whole lineup stayed the same from the last game, except for the position that I was playing—it just showed that he had faith in me.”

Rubin scored on a first-half free kick, and Dorados ran out 3-1 winners.

This was a trend, or at least a theme, with Maradona and his players. He was not a traditional coach. This was not a man who spent time immersing himself in modern analytics or the latest in tactical periodization, and in a way that’s not surprising. The handful of players with Maradona’s gifts already possess the advantages that others seek through painstaking preparation and analysis. For Maradona, it was about passion, motivation and love. And, at Dorados, that often was enough. During his year in charge, he guided the team to two championship finals and within a couple games of promotion to Liga MX. His presence and charisma seemed to be sufficient.

“The way we trained as a team just made a lot of sense. A lot of football and the success you have in football, for me, I think a lot of it is more mental and stuff like that—the way you approach the field, the confidence you have at that moment,” Rubin said.

“The guy loves soccer. You wanted to go to battle with him every training even. In training, I can remember the times we had training he’d just put a ball out, make two squads—11 v. 11, or 7 v. 7—and it would be like the best game I ever played in. You knew Diego was watching,” he added. “Maradona didn’t say much, and if he did it was before training. Once he just put the ball out and he’d be like, ‘Let’s play.’ That’s when he would watch and see, ‘All right, who’s ready to play? Who’s going to be in my starting team?’”

Rubio Rubin playing for Dorados in Mexico

Assistants took care of scouting and game preparation. Training was “less structural,” Rubin said, and focused more on Maradona’s belief that the best way to improve was simply to play.

“Diego, to be completely fair, he didn’t really care about the opposing team. He just wanted our team to focus on themselves,” Rubin said. “He brought this positive energy to the team that we were literally thinking no one can beat us. That’s what we believed because Diego believed it. The guy had so much confidence in all of us.”

Dorados finished the 2019 Clausura regular season fifth out of 15 teams with a 5-4-5 record, while advancing to the Copa MX quarterfinals before bowing out to UNAM Pumas. They then hit their stride in the playoffs, advancing to the finals with four consecutive victories over Cimarrones de Sonora and Mineros de Zacatecas. Rubin finished the campaign with three goals.

But his memories of that season with Maradona seem less about what happened on match day, and more about priceless moments with the legend when there weren’t cameras or a crowd.

“It was insane how much attention this guy got,” Rubin said.

Maradona relished time when he could enjoy the game without all the trappings that bedeviled him so frequently. Dorados took charter flights to and from matches so the players and their famous manager could travel safely and with some semblance of peace. And he rarely wasted an opportunity to speak with his players or share stories, whether it was at meals, during stretching exercises or even before practices, when Maradona would drag a cooler onto the field, sit on top and share his thoughts and tales. He was more likely to talk about an amazing (and probably free) meal he ate in Naples, Rubin said, then about winning the World Cup.

“Before training he would sit us down for like 30 minutes and it was a great time to hear something, and I was excited. Every single time training would come around, he would tell us something—tell us a story for at least five or 10 minutes, and everyone just wanted to hear what kind of things he experienced or how he was feeling that day. That’s how much power the guy had. It was just awesome to hear him speak about anything in life,” Rubin said.

“I’d never had that kind of coaching anywhere else in my life or even until this day,” he continued. “I’d never had that, where a coach comes in and you feel like you get to know him, you get what I’m saying? You feel like you’re part of his life. He’s letting us in. We feel close to him. He wants us to be part of his life, the things he deals with, just stuff that he truly felt in his career. A lot of coaches today, I don’t think they really care about sharing their personal life. They really care about just winning games and stuff like that. Diego didn’t have that. He wanted to win, but at the same time he wanted to get close to you. He was a coach who cared about us.”

That level of care and concern coming from a man of such stature was inspiring and intoxicating, but it was unsustainable. After falling in the Clausura finals to Atlético San Luis in extra time, Maradona left the club, citing his health and the pain he was suffering due to shoulder and knee issues that required surgery. Three months later, in September 2019, he took over at Gimnasia de La Plata back in Argentina. Rubin remained at Dorados until early this year. Absent Maradona, the club failed to make the Apertura playoffs under Mexican manager José Guadalupe Cruz. It remains in the second tier.

Following the pandemic pause, Rubin returned to the USA and signed with San Diego Loyal of the USL Championship. That afforded him another unique opportunity. After being coached by perhaps the greatest of all time, he’d get to work under perhaps the closest thing in American soccer to Maradona: Landon Donovan.

Landon Donovan and Rubio Rubin at San Diego Loyal training

“I think Landon is the greatest player in American history and I love hearing him speak. One of the reasons I came to the USL Championship was Landon Donovan,” Rubin said.

They’re opposite personalities in many ways—Donovan is thoughtful, analytical and introspective while Maradona was fiery, uninhibited and gregarious—but both could command a room and neither would get frustrated with players who lacked their skills and abilities, Rubin said. They both were driven to help players reach their potential. Donovan is a more modern coach, but Rubin said that when he was able, Maradona was eager to share tips, pointers and wisdom.

"I have a couple videos of him and I shooting free kicks together one on one,” Rubin said. “I stayed a little bit of extra time on the field and we shot some free kicks together, and he pretty much just shows me how to shoot a free kick. I don’t share those videos on social media, just because I don’t feel like I need to. It’s more personal than anything else.”

Those are the recollections that will linger, Rubin said. There was the “overwhelming” attention as Dorados traversed the country—there’s a Netflix documentary called ‘Maradona in Mexico’ that chronicles his Sinaloa sojourn—and there were moments that clarified just how uneasy Maradona’s relationship with football and his fame could be, like when he almost came to blows with chanting fans following the loss to San Luis. Seeing that fine line—Rubin said he was certain the same supporters who jeered him in opposing stadiums would flock to Maradona in reverence on the street—helped Rubin sympathize with how difficult it was for Maradona to navigate his complex life. Football gave him everything and it demanded everything, and so the prized memories of their time together focus on those moments when Maradona could appreciate the game quietly, stripped of the glitz that nearly drove him to ruin.

Rubio Rubin plays for the USA vs. Bolivia

“One of the best memories I have of him would be when his son would come after training. When we’d be all done training, they’d leave the lights on and it would be just Diego and his son [Diego Fernando] on the field. His son was like 5 or 6 years old,” Rubin said. “We’d be stretching and he’d bring his kid from the stands and they would just be on the field kicking a ball At the time, he couldn’t move much. He wasn’t very mobile. But at the same time, when his kid would be on the field, what? Diego did what? He could move!”

Rubin continued, “You take that to heart. He loved his family. He loved every person in his family. Diego’s gone and those memories stick to you, just knowing that he was such a great father to his kid and trying to teach him soccer.”

Rubin said he’s had conversations with a few MLS clubs about 2021. He’s anxious to get back to playing first-division football after scoring five goals in just four games with San Diego. Re-signing with Loyal also is a possibility. Rubin said he hasn’t heard from U.S. national team coach Gregg Berhalter, but he’s hoping eventually to work himself back into the player pool. Rubin played four times for Berhalter’s predecessor, Dave Sarachan, in 2018.

“I’m motivated,” Rubin said. “I know I can get back to the national team. … I still believe it.”

That belief is a positive, uniquely American part of Maradona’s complex legacy.

“It hurt so much to see him pass away and leave his family behind and leave the football world. The experiences I had I’ll take to heart,” Rubin said. “I just hope people understand that he was a great guy. He loved football. It was his way out. It was his life as a coach, as a player, as a dad even. At the end of the day, I think the guy was a great human being, regardless of whatever people said about him and his past, the drug abuse problems he had. He was a great person. He brought positive energy as a coach, as a manager, as a human being. I definitely just want to end it on that.”