Bringing Diego Maradona to coach in Dubai was a calculated risk for the Al Wasl club.
People can be jailed for public drinking or even making rude gestures in the United Arab Emirates, making somebody with Maradona’s history of drug and alcohol abuse and knack for courting controversy an odd choice for a coach.
“He does come with a checkered history and a very well publicized short fuse,” said Carlo Nohra, who was chief executive of the UAE Pro League before taking the same job at the Al Ain club. “Of course, the liability was that the media value would soon wear out and the fuse would blow for whatever reason. Then, he would leave and UAE soccer would be then back in the news for all the wrong reason.”
Halfway through Maradona’s two-year deal, the gamble appears to have paid off for Al Wasl.
The man who led Argentina to the 1986 World Cup and is regarded among the greatest players ever is still in the desert, having avoided any scandal.
Maradona has tested his club’s patience, though, with verbal attacks on its owners, a spat with a rival coach and an incident in which he kicked an Al Wasl fan. But he has been a huge draw with fans across the Gulf and almost has single-handedly put Al Wasl on the international soccer map.
“Sometime the crowd comes only to see Maradona, not Al Wasl,” said Cosmin Olaroiu, the head coach at champion Al Ain who has a not-so-friendly rivalry with the 51-year-old Argentine. “Everyone from around the world, they look here because there is some news about him.”
Maradona didn’t look much like a soccer savior when he arrived for negotiations with Al Wasl.
Appearing unshaven, overweight and dressed like a tourist, Maradona looked the part of an unemployed coach looking for a fresh start. His skill on the field hadn’t translated into coaching — and he was fired by Argentina after a 4-0 World Cup quarterfinal loss to Germany.
But the crowds that greeted him on his first appearance at Al Wasl were oblivious to any negatives. They mobbed him and chanted his name as he watched the team practice. He blew them kisses. When he ventured out to a Dubai mall to buy one of his two daughters a birthday gift, the crowds grew so big that security had to hustle him into a Prada store for his safety.
It didn’t take long for Maradona’s bluster and bravado to return, even as he criticized the sport’s leading administrators.
“Today, I feel the same challenge, the same way as I felt when I was coaching the national team,” Maradona said, flashing a mischievous smile. “If we work hard with a good team, we can make history.”
Maradona got his first win in his second match, but the victory was overshadowed by his fiery antics. He was forced to apologize after kicking the hand of fan who had repeatedly interfered as he was posing for a photo in front of a banner from his grandson, Benjamin.
And after a particularly tough loss to Al Ain, Maradona accused Olaroiu of being rude and disrespectful for the way he celebrated a goal. The Romanian coach shot back that Maradona didn’t have a “clear mind.” Maradona was later fined by the league, but continued to take shots at Olaroiu — even refusing to shake hands when the teams met again.
“The Al Ain coach doesn’t seem to have any football sense. It was obvious when he celebrated the team’s goal. It was provocative,” Maradona said. “It’s a shame what he did and I will not forget.”
At another match, Maradona charged into the stands to confront Al Shabab fans who were taunting his partner, Veronica Ojeda, and the wives of several players. He had to be restrained by security staff and later described the fans as “cowards” for heckling the women.
The emotional outburst only further endeared him with Al Wasl fans, who have been captivated by a man who brought a sense of excitement to a club that hadn’t won anything in four years.
Wearing a diamond stud in each ear and the black and yellow Al Wasl polo shirt and baggy shorts, Maradona has been impossible to miss as he stalked the sidelines during the season.
“Maradona is good for Al Wasl and Al Wasl is good for Maradona,” said Safwan Abdulrahman, a 24-year-old fan whose top-to-toe Al Wasl outfit included a yellow wig, as he pointed to one of the sold-out crowds during the season. “All those people, most of them are here for Maradona.”
Fans have found plenty of extravagant ways to reward their famous coach: One gave him a Ferrari; another paid for him to attend a Manchester City match in a private jet.
And the celebrity status also has helped Maradona dodge any blame for the team finishing eighth in a 12-team league.
“I’m not a magician,” Maradona said, shrugging off a recent loss with another stab at the club’s lack of player depth.
Off the pitch, Maradona has avoided the public eye and spends much of his time holed up at his villa — a sharp contrast to a man who battled a cocaine habit even before he retired in 1997 and once fired an air gun at reporters outside his home and was threatened with jail.
He seems only concerned with soccer, passing up the chance to make millions from guest appearances and endorsements, although the club acknowledges his presence has led to a sharp increase in attendance and the signing of two new major sponsors.
He also seems more the family man than ever, especially since the death of his mother in November. He returned from the funeral distraught, breaking down after one victory. He talks incessantly about his grandchildren and has his grandson’s name Benjamin tattooed on his right arm. He wears two watches — one showing British time so he only has to glance to know what time it is where his daughter and grandson live.
His talk of spending more time with his grandchildren has fueled speculation that Maradona would break his contract, a prospect that seemed increasingly likely in recent weeks as he ratcheted up complaints about the club’s lack of talent and broken promises over new players.
“I will be ready to leave if I cannot get the players I want,” he demanded last month. “If I can’t compete, there is no reason to continue. … Maybe after 31 years of being in this industry, maybe it’s time to do something else and spend more time with my grandson.”
But just when it seemed Maradona was packing his bags, he reversed course. He emerged this month from a meeting with management insisting he will honor his contract with only a game left in the season.
For now, the Maradona show will be back for another season.
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