x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Diego Maradona is out for the count

As soon as the Argentine was appointed Chuck Culpepper started wondering how long the Maradona circus would stay in Dubai. 422 days was the answer.

Diego Maradona took his first session as coach of Al Wasl in August last year.
Diego Maradona took his first session as coach of Al Wasl in August last year.

So if you guessed 422 days back at the start of it, you win. If you guessed 421, you really do have a right to be mad about the Leap Day.

And if you guessed Diego Maradona would be the Al Wasl manager for about 730 days, as I did, you lose, where if you guessed only about 14, you're really sort of a wise guy but probably not bad company.

The 422 days had come and gone as of Tuesday, and while any 422-day stretch teaches us a thing or two, this one probably taught us a thing or several.

It taught us again about this country, about its early nature as a why-not adventurer among countries. Here's a country where there will be a Louvre 5,200 kilometres from the original. Here's a country where there will be a Guggenheim, 11,000 kilometres from the original.

Here's a country where one soupy day in June, you might ride out on to a palm frond with a hazy skyline in the distance, and you might sit in front of a stage and a curtain, and from behind that curtain and from 13,500 kilometres away might appear Diego Maradona, wearing clam-digger jeans shorts and black trainers with orange soles.

He might arrive talking about passion and hard work, years after some apparently inaccurate reports had him deceased.

Here he would cement the enchanting idea that around here, you never know what you might find around the corner.

In his own, trivial, smaller-than-the-real-news way, his arrival warranted another tip of the cap to the risk-takers, the adventure-makers, the people who try things even though the consequences might contain thorns.

Then the 422 days taught us again about the inextinguishable allure of fame, how it plays so peculiarly on the senses.

At a soupy August midnight in Dubai, there materialised Maradona for a training session, and it really did take some time to process the sight even though the brain knew full well he was due at the premises.

Much as the sudden sight of Tiger Woods walking up a fairway can look, Maradona did appear almost superimposed on to the scene.

Fame meant that fans attended a practice - to see a manager, and that some even lit flares.

That a club retired a No 10 with a name that had never played for it. That Al Wasl's away matches became more peopled than they would have without the manager who did not play in any of the matches.

That reasonable percentage of adults engaged in that common but strange practice of securing a man's autograph.

In full view as well was fame's long-term effect upon its holder, upon a man who has lived one of those uncommon lives being complimented and exalted so persistently that a logical entitlement takes hold.

A few decades of that, and you might well think it proper to go into the stands to berate fans. You might complain about an opposing manager's etiquette even as yours brims with antics whose license the staggering fame affords.

You say eighth place is all about the insufficient players and the management spending, because in the mind the world has helped you construct, it has to be all about them.

In some sense, then, it's instructive even watching Maradona just walk into a room.

For those of us who long have walked into rooms with trepidation or a feeling of an ordinariness, here is a man who walks in with unmistakable sense of I-am-here.

For 422 days he walked into those rooms around the UAE, and it formed a captivating presence. We can't stop looking even when we tire of looking.

Yet he shared that telling quote, "My anger will always remain," about how any loss always seems as painful as the first. "I still have it deep within me." That could make you remember this phenomenon of a man hailed from one of the harder parts of Buenos Aires, that his ascent had been steep, and that fame doesn't fix too much.

And, of course, the 422 days reinforced the despotic rule of tables, standings and tournament brackets. They lord even over a man called the greatest ever.

For me, it still seems unfair, the brevity of the 422 days, unless the working relations had just made the whole thing untenable in a way that has not gone publicised.

To establish oneself managing something as sprawling and public as a football club, two years would seem a fair minimum.

Yet case after case has branded my view as outdated, for this is not the world we occupy. In the intensified pressure of now, managers coming and going after months has gone blase.

In certain circumstances freighted from the outset, 422 days can seem almost a bit of a feat.


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