x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Celebrity is good, but only if you are a winner

If 'being Diego' were Maradona's only job requirement, he and Wasl could congratulate each other. Alas, the small matter of 'results'.

Al Wasl has benefitted from the celebrity of Diego Maradona, but the results on the field have not shown the substance.
Al Wasl has benefitted from the celebrity of Diego Maradona, but the results on the field have not shown the substance.

Last spring, Al Wasl Sports Club pulled off the greatest public relations coup in the history of the Pro League when they hired Diego Maradona, the legend and celebrity, to coach their side.

He instantly brought greater attention to the Dubai team than they had ever known, and the global curiosity continues unabated.

His generous interactions with UAE fans, who revere him as a sports idol, have made him beloved, and not just at Zabeel Stadium.

When he arrived at Al Wahda's home ground last week, he found a huge sign, hung by Wahda fans, that read, in English: "Maradona - the legend. Welcome to our country and stadium. You are the best ever. We all love you too much."

Imagine fans at Old Trafford displaying such sentiment for, say, Arsene Wenger.

If "being Diego", the charming populist, were Maradona's only job requirement, he and Wasl could congratulate each other on a job well done.

Alas, the small matter of "results" eventually should enter into the equation.

At present, the Wasl club coached by Maradona are not a good team. At all. They have two points from their past four league matches and have drifted to sixth in the table, 11 points behind Al Ain.

A listless 2-1 league defeat to a Wahda side missing half their team prompted the Argentine manager to concede that the most important domestic title already is out of reach.

"After this performance, it is quite obvious that we are not going to compete for a [league] championship," he said through translators.

He went on to level at his players the sort of blunt criticism he previously had reserved for referees.

"I wasn't happy with the performance at all," he stated. "There was no character … they were missing the enthusiasm. It didn't see like they wanted to win … It seems as if the team doesn't want to achieve."

The man who was dispensing hugs to every man in a Wasl shirt just a few weeks before, ominously added: "There is going to be a re-evaluation of all the players to see who is going to take this seriously. The players without a winning mentality will definitely be replaced."

Two days later, Wasl were awash with rumours of comings and goings in the transfer window.

Tellingly, the club's reaction to disappointing results has been to stand on its head the time-honoured UAE football tradition: instead of replacing the coach, Wasl are trying to overhaul their team in mid-season.

About 50 managers who came before Maradona in Pro League history must wish they had such a chance.

That Wasl are proceeding on this course would indicate that they remain infatuated with their rock-star coach and are unprepared to imagine that he may be part of the problem, not part of the solution.

That he has a thin managerial resume cannot be disputed.

There are brief stints with the Argentina sides Mandiyu and Racing Club some 15 years ago, and the two years leading the Argentine national team, who qualified with difficulty for the 2010 World Cup.

The Argentina of Lionel Messi, Carlos Tevez, Gonzalo Higuain, Javier Mascherano and Juan Sebastian Veron had little trouble winning their group and dismissing Mexico in the Round of 16 in South Africa, though some would suggest a schoolboy could have won with that talent.

In the final eight, however, Argentina were annihilated 4-0 by Germany, and the manager clearly had no answers that day.

Wasl is Maradona's only other coaching assignment.

To be fair, his side were impressive in early matches. They seemed to play with flair and urgency, with Mariano Donda leading the attack, and Majed Naser, the UAE national, in goal.

Their early successes, however, came mostly against sides in the lower half of the table, and at Wahda last week they looked already spent and jaded.

Maradona also seemed gripped by a strange passivity – the manager, who for months had shouted and cajoled from the dugout, stood quietly for most of the match.

If his side were guilty of completing more passes to opponents than teammates, as he alleged after the Wahda match, whose fault is that, some five months after he took control of the team?

If his players cannot grasp and execute the plan for a match, how much responsibility falls at the feet of the coach?

A prominent football tactician in the UAE the other day suggested that Maradona deserves more time to show his quality.

Agreed.

But if the negative trends continue, Wasl may have to decide whether a celebrity coach is more important to them than a winning coach.

They too, may love Maradona too much.

 

poberjuerge@thenational.ae