x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Diego Maradona: Dubai's new little skyscraper

Under a moonlit night, and with the occasional flare in the stands, Diego Maradona began his tenureship at Al Wasl. The UAE may never be the same.

At 11.14 pm Saturday, Diego Maradona, centre, the Argentine football great, began the Al Wasl chapter of his football life.
At 11.14 pm Saturday, Diego Maradona, centre, the Argentine football great, began the Al Wasl chapter of his football life.

Pretty soon this will not seem so dreamlike, and the are-you-kidding sight of Diego Maradona taking the pitch at Al Wasl will begin to seem routine, and maybe even rote.

For now, though, it's a Saturday night in Dubai, the moon is hanging near the Burj Khalifa and the lights have switched on at the training centre.

And a few hordes wait in the pea-soup air.

The time reads 11.14pm, and that itself seems unreal, because not many managers have overseen midnight workouts except in cases of pique.

Not many midnight workouts have drawn fans.

But there's the 75-strong horde of fans in one stand and the 30-strong horde of fans in another, which does not factor in the 20-strong horde of photographers out next to the pitch awaiting one of the most photographed people in the history of the world.

Those still do not count the 15 or so autograph hunters pressed against the temporary metal barricades, or the guest workers building a fortification to the side of the second stand, one puffing a cigarette as the drills whirr.

From out between the buildings at 11.15pm, here comes - no, really - Maradona, another sight-to-behold in the transformation of Dubai from quiet desert to global destination. A short man and a skyscraper all at once. The 50 year old who won a World Cup so famously, and then nearly won another less famously, emerges, and as sights go on a hot and still Saturday night in August, this would have to rank as memorable.

He veers to his right and stops for about three minutes, posing for photographs and signing several autographs, including one upon an Argentina shirt a fan secured from a holiday to Buenos Aires.

"Amigo!" shouts one fan, apparently a friend of Maradona's. "Amigo!"

He is not overly warm, but not at all dismissive, exhibiting the patience of somebody who knows and lives the routine. He nods and acknowledges, and helps out but does not chatter. He seems to finish, then returns to pose, then seems to finish, then returns to pose.

From behind this cluster and about 30 paces away in the stands comes one rare sound at 11.18pm - chanting in August. "Diego! Diego! Diego! Diego Maradona!" it goes, homage to a manager who stands 0-0 but stands famous.

From his stopover with fans, Maradona eases out through the running track and on to the pitch, where players stretch and ready themselves and lift their shirts to wipe sweat.

It still looks sort of bewildering as he enters the group and stands amid players until they disperse to the other end for work.

While the players go through drills and then dribble beautifully en masse, Maradona stands, talking at length to his assistant, Hector Enrique. Photographers move around the running track for various angles and people in the bleachers behind the high fence sit, eye-balling Maradona, who is standing and talking at length to Enrique. A television man does a stand-up with the Wasl players training in the background while Maradona stands talking at length to Enrique. It does help with the realisation process, Maradona talking at length to Enrique.

One longtime Wasl fan wears a collared "MARADONA" shirt, black with gold trim and the numeral "10". While the gathering thins out during the hour-long session, this fan by the fence lasts the whole time and says in limited English that while his fan-hood has remained for decades, it also has undergone a Maradonan upgrade.

And, along the bottom rungs of the stands, fans suddenly light a flare, which might be a historic flare of the most trivial trivia - the first lit at a midnight training session. It burns orange and then burns white and then burns out, right there beneath the spectators.

Some people do photograph this flare.

After all, comprehension of this situation will have to trickle in.

By 12.30am, the same Maradona who had roared through the pitches so conspicuously in South America and in Europe and especially in Mexico in 1986, and who had managed Argentina in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, who had starred in tabloid front pages most everywhere, had monitored a training session in the middle of the night in the Middle East while fans watched and lit a flare.

With the pitch gone dark and empty, you might ask, just for now, and not for much longer: was that real?

sports@thenational.ae