It is the rarest of commodities in the Arabian Gulf League, yet Mariano Donda, the Al Wasl captain, craves time.
Time to reach full rehabilitation following a serious knee injury that necessitated eight months without football; time to help nurture the Dubai club’s fresh flock of talented youngsters; time to develop a successful understanding with Hector Cuper, the seventh coach in Donda’s two-and-half years at the Zabeel Stadium.
“The only way here is to work, and Cuper is working hard with the team, at the same level with all the players.” Donda said. “But this is a long season. We have another six months and we still have too much work to do.”
That statement received a firm endorsement last week. After a gentle introduction to UAE football – four points were gleaned from two matches – Cuper watched his new side suffer their worst league defeat in the professional era during a 6-1 loss to Al Nasr.
Reduced to 10 men when Yaser Salem saw red on three minutes, by the time the clock approached the half-hour mark, Wasl were four goals down. Understandably, Donda finds the disappointment hard to shake.
“Football is difficult to enjoy, because every time you must win, or you try to do your best to win,” the Argentine midfielder said. “You can prepare a long time for a season, or for a match, but then something bad happens.
“We received a big kick against Al Nasr. I was afraid for the club and afraid for the supporters, because I know a lot of them and what they felt after the match. But sometimes you need this kind of kick.”
Monday’s hard-fought, extra-time victory against Ajman in the President’s Cup at least offered some relief. Donda was left out of the starting XI, but he hopes to return for Sunday’s crucial league encounter with Al Ahli, the current leaders.
“Maybe this will be the start of something good for us,” he said.
However, false dawns endlessly break over Wasl. Having lifted a league-and-cup double in 2007, one of the country’s most decorated clubs have since failed to replenish the trophy cabinet.
Ironically, Diego Maradona’s stormy reign,which began in May 2011, marked a relatively serene stretch in which Wasl confided in a solitary coach – in the 2008/09 campaign they employed five different managers. But 14 months into his tenure, the Argentine was dismissed. Wasl had finished eighth, stranded far from their former pedestal.
Last season, unfortunate circumstances gave way to calamity, prompting significant change at the boardroom level. In April, Abdullah Hareb was sworn in as chairman and led the new regime, but when Wasl eventually slipped to ninth, manager Eid Baroot’s temporary contract was not made permanent, and Frenchman Laurent Banide was welcomed to the club as coach instead.
His new paymasters announced a “10-year plan” to restore Wasl to past glory, placing an emphasis on developing and promoting youth-team players. Fahad Hadeed was the poster boy of the new era, but even his fine start this season failed to spark the side under Banide.
He was relieved of his duties after five months, with Cuper installed as his replacement on November 14. And so began another project. Again, restraint has been stressed.
“This year, Al Wasl are in a big transition,” Donda said. “We’re trying to look toward the younger players and they need time. So it’s a big chance for us to help them, and Cuper is a big part of that.
“He’s efficient, a good coach. But we will only be able to tell at the end of the season. Now we try to listen to him, to practice what he’s doing or what he’s thinking, yet we must be patient. We need time to know his mind.
“This is a new period in Al Wasl, but I wish the players will help him to get confident with us and to try to do our best to improve. We must recognise the opportunity to change in football is today.”
Focusing on the present can prove difficult when minds constantly cast to the future.
Wasl yearn for a return to their championship-winning ways, yet the trust placed in emergent players, such as Hadeed or Othman Al Hamour or Abdullah Kazim – all age 21 or younger – requires a little perspective, especially considering the capriciousness that perpetually swirls in the background.
“I know for the local players, it’s not easy to change coach all the time, that we’ve had seven or eight in the past few years,” Donda said. “But we must understand that professionals are everyone. Everybody has a salary, everybody has a contract.
“In football, every day is a test. Being professional is not just two or three hours, it’s one day, 24 hours. So we try to help the young players realise this, and to help the new coach, because these are his first weeks. Soon, we hope to change the situation.”
If anything is to improve, much responsibility falls on the club’s foreign players. Aspersions have been cast upon the international quartet of Donda, Milan Susak, Andre Senghor and Abdelfettah Boukhriss. Meanwhile, Kaio, the Brazilian forward, and Edson Puch, the Chilean midfielder, have recently joined first-team training, although Donda reiterates that success only finds root in the collective.
“Sure, everybody must criticise themselves,” he said. “And everybody must do better. But this is a team. If the player who’s near to me plays better, I will play better. It’s not magic. There are no miracles.
“So we work as a group. There is no point in the striker scoring 10 goals if we concede 11. Only by working in training, and by feeling proud that we’re at this club, is the best way we can honour the club.”
As captain and compatriot to Cuper, the burden of expectation weighs more heavily on Donda. He is a conduit between the coach and his colleagues, but at times during the past few weeks, even he has found himself omitted from the side.
That he has featured in 11 of 15 matches this season following last January’s knee surgery confirms his influence on the team, but still, Donda is not content.
“I’ll be happy when I take some championships with Al Wasl,” he said. “Or when I win two or three matches consecutively. Because, for me, first of all, there is Al Wasl, not Mariano.
“I will do my best and I will do that until the last day at this club. As I tell the players all the time, we must do our best every day, because in football we don’t have time.”