DUBAI // Diego Maradona has been a financial boon for Al Wasl and already has led to an exponential rise in global recognition of the club brand, said Marwan bin Bayat, the team's chairman, factors that demonstrate that hiring him as coach was not a publicity stunt.
Maradona, arguably the most famous figure in world football and widely regarded as the greatest player to ever kick a ball, joined Wasl in the summer after being released from his position as coach of Argentina.
The appointment of the 50-year-old Argentine drew excitement and exasperation in the Emirates: fans heralded in a new hero, while cynics dismissed him as a transient mercenary with a poor managerial record.
Yet, with the exception of a dismal 5-0 defeat to Dubai in the Etisalat Cup, results have been positive, none more so than a 3-0 victory over Sharjah in the league opener last weekend.
On the eve of Wasl's second game of the new season, against Baniyas on Saturday, bin Bayat said that his managerial coup is proving to be far more than an attention-grabbing acquisition.
"Yes, of course, we knew that we are going to get a lot of publicity out of this decision and that appointing Diego Maradona would be an investment that can bring a lot of positive returns to the club," bin Bayat said.
"From a business perspective, it's a feasible decision that makes absolute sense.
"Having said all this, our priority is to achieve positive results and take Al Wasl back to its former glory as one of the top clubs in the region, and we are very happy so far with what he has done."
Maradona has already demonstrated his passion for the role with a candid news conference last week when he pleaded for more professionalism in training and even offered to pay for players' families and friends to come to matches, saying: "I will pay for all their expenses; I am willing to give them my own jersey."
Bin Bayat dismissed suggestions that the Argentine World Cup winner had arrived in the UAE on a two-year contract solely to collect a sizeable salary before moving on to further his managerial career elsewhere. The club's chief executive said that Maradona had "more than one offer from different teams, whether on club or national level, but he chose Al Wasl".
"Absolutely not," said Bin Bayat when asked if it was fair to assume that Maradona was in Dubai to boost his bank balance. "From the first day we met with Diego, he showed his passion for coaching and being involved in football. He was very professional and serious with his dealing with us.
"His decision was clearly based on research that he'd done, and from the moment we signed with him until today, we have seen this passion, the seriousness and the commitment being translated every day. I can assure you that Maradona's main objective is to achieve great results with Al Wasl."
The chief executive's main objective is no different, but the Emirati is also keen to build a brand capable of becoming Asia's most prominent both on and off the field.
Maradona's appointment may be only the first step, but it is a giant leap in terms of developing global interest. Already, bin Bayat said, Al Wasl strips are being purchased in Argentina and other South American countries.
"The Al Wasl fan base mainly from abroad has increased dramatically since the appointment of Maradona," he said. "His fans are some of the most fanatic and most dedicated fans in the world, and we have witnessed this through continuous interaction from these fans."
Bin Bayat pointed out that, in the past four months, the official Al Wasl Twitter feed has grown from having 50 followers to more than 1,600. A scroll through their list of subscribers throws up users from Uruguay, Qatar, South Korea and, of course, Argentina. The club's website, he said, attracted more than 30,000 unique page views over the same time frame - an increase of 300 per cent on the previous four months.
"There's no doubt that ever since the appointment of Diego Maradona, the name of Al Wasl has exploded on the worldwide radar, especially in South America," he said. "In the past three months, there were more than 3,700 articles posted online all over the world about Al Wasl and Maradona."
Aside from the UAE, bin Bayat said the majority of the articles came from the United States and Argentina.
"The club is now being followed by media from all over the world, and the publicity that we are getting can be compared to the largest clubs in the world," bin Bayat said. "We believe that this has a positive impact not only on Al Wasl Club, but for Dubai and UAE football, in general."
* Additional reporting by Brian Murgatroyd