x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 July 2017

Focus as much on Maradona as on players' performance

The Argentine football legend's record as a manager is not the best, leading many to believe he is only at Al Wasl for the money.

Diego Maradona has been making the right noises since Al Wasl confirmed their stunning swoop of the Argentine legend back in June.

"I have not come here for a holiday, but to work," he said at his first press conference, confirming those intentions earlier this week stating: "We did not come here just to sunbathe in Dubai - you can do that anywhere in the world."

Those words, however, have failed to convince the sceptics. They remain in disbelief, unable to comprehend why one of the greatest players football has known would pick the UAE to restart his managerial career.

It is the money, they claim, and the sight of Maradona sweating it out with his players in 40°C-plus heat makes no difference to their opinion. Others have called this a marketing gimmick, pointing to Maradona's unflattering record as manager.

The Wasl management and fans have been unwavering in their belief though, and have been waiting excitedly for the season to begin. The day has arrived then and Maradona will be leading his side out against Al Jazira, the defending league champions, in their opening match of the Etisalat Cup on Thursday night.

It is a stiff first test, but success in Maradona's own words is "winning the next match" and he has been busy planning for this game for more than four weeks. His team, however, looked far from convincing in their last friendly, a 2-1 loss to Dibba Al Fujairah.

Maradona is trying to get his team to play an Argentina-style game, with the emphasis on possession, and the players still seem to be getting used to this.

"We have worked hard with the players and have got them used to playing in a way they were not used to before ... they were not used to working much with the ball," he said.

"Keeping the ball and keeping possession is a very important priority for our players. If we have possession, our enemies will run more than us."

Instead of keeping possession, the players were guilty of giving away the ball a bit too easily. Whether they have improved on that aspect of the game will be known on Thursday night, but Maradona will be garnering as much attention as the action on the field.

In the 3-1 win over Ittihad Kalba in their first friendly match, he gave a taste of things to come with a showdown against his opposite number. Against Dibba, he went sprinting to the scene as Mariano Donda got involved in a scuffle with the opposition players.

The world will be watching for those moments when the season begins and Maradona, known for his volatile temperament and disregard for authority, will probably not disappoint them. Controversy has never been far from him.

But Maradona is an entertainer as well and many more supporters will be drawn to those yellow arches of the Zabeel Stadium in the coming months, whether they are Wasl fans or not. Few football fans, irrespective of nationality, can afford to miss this opportunity of watching one of the sporting world's greatest names in person.

The stadium is sprucing itself up for those visitors, expecting them in large numbers. Sponsors have been queuing up as well, but the officials will also be hoping for a bit of success on the field.

"The announcement comes with big ambitions," Marwan Al Bayat, the Al Wasl Football Company chief executive, had said at the time of Maradona's appointment. "We have big dreams for next season."

Maradona's has been non-committal towards that end. "In football someone who says they will be champion is not telling you the truth," he said, adding, "Football is a Pandora's box. Today you win, tomorrow you lose."

The Pandora box is about to be opened tonight and the Wasl fans will be hoping its content are different from the one in Greek mythology.


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