Dubai: Somewhere in early 2011 the UAE media went into an overdrive of excitement when it was revealed that the legendary Argentine Diego Maradona would take over as coach at Al Wasl.
Why would one of the few true legends of the game decide on a managerial career in Dubai? That was the question on everyone’s mind. A bit of probing laid bare the actual turn of events.
Maradona was on his way to attend the opening of a new stadium in the Chechen capital of Grozny via Dubai. One of the officials from Al Wasl who received Maradona in transit asked him if he would take over as manager. The Argentine is believed to have agreed and then a few days later, made a quick stop in Dubai to be unveiled as the Cheetahs’ new coach for the 2011-12 season. The scene was crazy when more than 10,000 turned up at Al Wasl to welcome the legend in his new role.
The club, in turn, witnessed a true renaissance with many international brands wanting to associate with the legend. One of them was international luxury watchmaker Hublot.
However, a legendary footballer need not be a class act in coaching. With the professional football league in the UAE just a few years young, a new breed of players didn’t mind receiving valuable lessons from a great footballer. The on-field energy was evident during training sessions and matches.
But, the honeymoon was not to last forever as Al Wasl started slipping in their matches. Not to be outdone, Maradona excelled with his off-field antics, including an occasion when he actually manhandled a fan from Al Wasl through the fence — and all because a section of the crowd had taunted his grandson Benjamin, who was with Maradona on the ground.
Slowly, but surely, the lustre eroded. Maradona became real and human. Al Wasl had no real results to justify his signing. The club were forced to prematurely part ways with him. But Maradona refused to depart from Dubai, and Dubai Sports Council stepped in to appoint him as a ‘Sporting Ambassador’.
In his new role, Maradona turned up at sporting events from the Fifa Intercontinental Beach Soccer to the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships. And as expected given his charisma, he never stopped entertaining. He turned up at the tennis stadium in Al Garhoud and just before fellow Argentine Juan Martin del Potro came on Centre court, Maradona wowed the fans with his keepie-up skills with a tennis ball.
In 2017, Maradona returned for a second coaching stint in the UAE, this time with Fujairah. But, here too, he was unable to see the second-tier minnows gain promotion to the Arabian Gulf League after losing in the play-offs. His mission incomplete, Maradona slowly and quietly slipped away from the UAE footballing scene, but left an indelible mark on the nation.