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Last updated: August 24, 2011 5:19 pm
On a bright Monday morning earlier this month, at the Berkshire polo farm that is his base for the English summer, the world’s best polo player is lounging in the sun among an entourage of teammates, friends, grooms and small children.
Yet as the player who has spent well over half his life at the pinnacle of the game climbs gingerly from his chair to greet me, it is clear that Adolfo Cambiaso is in some discomfort.
“I could hardly walk yesterday,” the Argentine confides as he leads me towards a modest room in the farmhouse to continue our discussion. The reason for the limp is a blow to the left knee sustained in a collision with another rider during his Dubai team’s surprise defeat in the quarterfinal of the prestigious Gold Cup two days earlier (the team had been winning comfortably until their captain and playmaker was forced off).
Coupled with Dubai’s loss at the same stage of the Queen’s Cup, this adds up to a below-par English season for a player who has dominated polo in the two decades since his remarkable debut season in the UK in 1991, when the precociously talented 16-year-old was a key part of the team that took home that year’s Gold Cup.
But if the player whose record includes eight victories in the Argentine Open, six in the US Open and five in the British Open, as well as seven Queen’s Cup titles and a host of other wins, is angry about the manner of his defeat, he hides it well.
“Last year I won everything [including the Gold Cup and Queen’s Cup], this year I didn’t,” he says with a shrug. “It is worse to lose because you play like shit or you did the wrong thing. Not when you lose because you got injured.”
While Cambiaso appears tired – a look accentuated by his habit of running both hands down his face before replying – there is no hint of the surliness I had been warned to expect. Yet his piercing brown eyes convey the resolve of a player who is famously competitive in the field.
Dressed all in black in a worn tracksuit, his famed good looks partially obscured by a tatty baseball cap and several days of stubble, Cambiaso does not fit the conventional image of a millionaire sportsman (“I am no David Beckham,” he says later). He largely shuns the celebrity and commercial aspects of polo, aside from his relationship with Jaeger-LeCoultre, the watch company for which he is a brand representative. He also professes not to know his own net worth – “I will never be a millionaire, and I don’t want to be,” he tells me before appearing surprised when his representative confirms he is already one many times over.
Home: Cañuelas, Buenos Aires
Marital status: Married to María Vázquez, model and TV personality, with three children
Career highlights: Argentine Open (8 wins), US Open (6), British Open (5), Queen’s Cup (7)
“I have not changed my life since I was 15 years old. My family is the only thing that has changed for me,” he says as five-year-old Adolfo, the second of his three children, appears in search of his father.
Cambiaso has been married for a decade to María Vázquez, the Argentine model and television personality. “I still have the same house and I have enough for a good life,” he says.
The “good life” is funded in part by the £1m ($1.6m) a season he is reputedly paid by Ali Albwardy, the Emirati businessman who is his patron, to captain team Dubai. However, the shock Gold Cup loss has brought a premature end to Cambiaso’s English season. On the day we meet, the farm’s stables are already empty, the 80 or so horses taken away to rest ahead of their next assignment.
Not only does this leave the farm eerily quiet, but it also removes the opportunity to see Cambiaso in the environment in which he is happiest – around horses. He was riding at the age of four – his mother’s family ran a polo ranch and his father was a “beach guy” – and had achieved a seven-goal handicap by the age of 15. The prized 10-goal rating he still holds came soon after. A natural horseman, Cambiaso also possesses tremendous ball skills – his trademark move being to gallop at full pelt while using his mallet to keep the ball in the air before smashing it between the posts. So what is the secret of his success?
“I play in good teams,” Cambiaso says modestly. “I have been lucky that Ali [Albwardy] has given me the possibility to run this [team], and so far we’ve been very successful. If you have the right horses and the right team, that’s the way to succeed. But you have to work and you have to improve. Every year you must get better.”
For the 36-year-old Cambiaso, who in the past has not been adverse to the occasional cigarette, this means a more rigorous training regime, which includes daily runs, gym sessions and tennis. But for how long can he stay at the top? “Five years,” he replies. “In this game, if you keep yourself fit, you can play until 40 or 41.”
And after that? “Something around horses and this game. I have met a lot of people and have a lot of friends [in the sport],” he says. He is already heavily involved in the lucrative business of horse breeding, and has an interest in Crestview Genetics, a leader in horse cloning and equine science. “This is something that is new to me. But we need to see if they [the clones] can play well,” he insists.
Yet thoughts of retirement will be far from Cambiaso’s mind when he returns to Argentina in the autumn to help his La Dolfina team wrestle the Argentine Open from their great rivals Ellerstina, who took last year’s title, and the coveted Triple Crown, with a thrilling 14-13 victory. “Everybody is talking about the Triple Crown, but I want to win the Open. That is my aim,” he says.
He also seeks to downplay the rivalry between himself and Ellerstina’s Gonzalo and Facundo Pieres, the polo-playing brothers most likely to inherit his crown. “Outside the field, it [the relationship] is very good; inside we want to beat each other. We are not … close friends, but we have good relations.”
Before he can renew that rivalry, Cambiaso must continue to play the role of an itinerant high-goal polo star. A few days after we meet, he is due to fly to California to play for the Lucchese team under John Muse, its patron. For the first time, he looks troubled. “I am very happy with my life, but seven or eight months a year I am away from home. I want to go home – that’s the truth. But I have to [play]. That is part of this game.”
Before he can do that, however, there is the small matter of his injured knee. “I should be back playing soon,” he says confidently.
After we have talked for half an hour, the entourage returns to whisk their star asset off to physiotherapy. Get back on the horse that threw you, goes the old adage. For the world’s best polo player, that should not prove too difficult.
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