For the inmates of Dubai Central Jail,having the former Argentine champion anywhere near by would have been enough. But to have the legend address them, kick off their world cup final and present the medals made prison life a lot brighter, at least for an afternoon.Wafa Issa reports
DUBAI // Diego Maradona graced football grounds for more than 20 years, and is one of the select few to have held the World Cup aloft.
It is safe to say, however, that the little Argentine wizard had done neither of those things inside a prison - until yesterday.
The Al Wasl coach, regarded by many as the greatest player of all time, was the guest of honour at the final of the "world cup" in Dubai Central Jail.
Maradona gave an inspirational speech to the prisoners, kicked off the final himself, and then presented the champions' trophy - a replica of the real World Cup - to the winners.
As the announcer pointed out: "This trophy is to be presented by the same hands that carried the real World Cup trophy back in 1986."
The prisoners were thrilled.
"Many people struggle to try to meet this guy in person," said Enos Ogada, 37, a Nigerian who managed the Ivory Coast team because they didn't have enough numbers. "It is a football-lover's dream. For him to come to us, it was a prayer answered.
"We only got to see him but it was wonderful that he was there. He was interacting with people, shaking hands. It was a wonderful moment."
The event, organised by Dubai Police, was part of the department's National Day celebrations.
It began with Maradona marching on to the pitch as the national anthem played and hundreds of prisoners, gathered to watch the final match between Nigeria and Cameroon, cheered wildly.
His entrance was followed by a horse-dancing show and demonstrations of police dogs' drug-sniffing and fugitive-tracking skills.
One group of prisoners carried a banner reading "Greeting and thanks to Diego Maradona, welcome to our home". Another read "No return to the old ways", a plea for prisoners not to return to lives of crime.
"We all might commit mistakes but it is possible, after getting out, to look to our lives and future in a better light," Maradona told the prisoners, with the help of an inmate who translated for him. "And there is not a better way than football to give a better feeling of the future."
After his speech, he surprised officials by asking to kick the final match off himself.
Twelve teams competed, representing the UAE, Iran, the UK, India, Mexico, Cameroon, Egypt, Pakistan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Nigeria and the Ivory Coast. Each team had seven players and a goalkeeper.
The Nigerians won the final 1-0, scoring in the first five minutes. The Indian team won a volleyball tournament, and the Filipino squad won first place in a basketball competition.
The best striker award went to a Nigerian player, while the best overall player was an Emirati.
Earlier Dubai Police had said a total of Dh100,000 in prize money would be handed out, including special awards for best player, goal keeper and striker.
Yesterday organisers said each player from the first and second-placed team in football, basketball and volleyball would receive Dh1,000. The money will be placed in their accounts at the prison.
Ziad Abaji, 50, a Syrian, told his daughter the tournament and Maradona's visit made him forget he was a prisoner.
"He called me the day he heard that Maradona was attending the tournament and was overjoyed," said Catia Abaji, speaking from the Netherlands. "I have not heard him this happy in many years.
"I even asked if he was expecting to be pardoned during National Day celebrations, but he interrupted me and continued to talk about the tournament. He seemed more excited about the tournament than about any possible pardon."
Many of the prisoners who participated in the tournament said they were happy and grateful for Maradona's participation, but that they were hoping for a pardon.
"We appreciate all the efforts and it is good that he is here, but we are still not happy for being here. We want to be given another chance," said James Josephat, the captain of the Nigerian team, who is serving 25 years.
Some of the prisoners had written "Please Pardon Me" on their white T-shirts.
"We have lost our lives here," said Andrew Eshio, also from Nigeria. "Some have lost wives, children, fathers and mothers. We are begging for a second chance."
Col Adel Al Suwaidi, the director of the education and training department at the prison, said although they did provide help for inmates with financial cases, those who had committed crimes needed to bear the repercussions.
Ogada said the tournament, if nothing else, provided an outlet and a sense of hope.
"This is part of the healing process," he said. "All of us are getting back on our feet."
* With additional reporting by Gerry Doyle