x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Maradona is working his charm at UAE's Al Wasl

Maradona probably can't take 10 steps outside his home without a photographer or autograph-seeker materialising out of thin air.

Footballers with global stature have plied their trade in the UAE. George Weah, the 1995 Fifa Player of the Year, wore the Al Jazira shirt a decade ago, and Fabio Cannavaro, who held the same award in 2006, played for Al Ahli last season.

Denilson came through the domestic league, and so did the Dutchman Phillip Cocu and the prolific Iranian Ali Daei.

None, however, arrived with a fraction of the fanfare accorded Diego Maradona, who seems to be followed 24 hours a day by a jostling pack of fans, journalists and paparazzi.

This is fame of the Michael Jackson/Mick Jagger/Princess Diana ilk. The sort of near-universal pop-star recognition perhaps never seen in this country.

The UAE is a footballing nation, but we are fairly confident that current elite players such as David Trezeguet and Asamoah Gyan could walk down any street without being accosted - or even recognised.

There is fame, and then there is fame as long as your shirt has your name on the back.

Maradona probably can't take 10 steps outside his home without a photographer or autograph-seeker materialising out of thin air.

And that sort of smothering celebrity has made for some curious moments since his first Al Wasl press conference, three months ago.

That event featured journalists from round the world and live translations into three languages, much as one would find at a meeting of heads of state.

At his first official post-match press conference, last week, Maradona's star power created gridlock in the Al Jazira media room, where approximately 80 Argentina expatriates, many of them wearing the national shirt, forced themselves into the small room in the hope of obtaining the photo of the great man, and perhaps his signature on any scrap of paper.

When it was announced that he would not be attending the press conference, an Argentine teenager complained bitterly of his "arrogance", and the albiceleste crowd filed out … only to charge back into the room a minute later with a shout of "he's coming!" With the cynical teenager leading the way.

Journalists complained of the invasion, but Jazira officials just shrugged a "what can we do?" shrug. After criticising the "poor organisation" at the stadium, Maradona soon was joking with his smitten countrymen (and women and children and infants), turning on his folksy, regular-guy charm.

When he left, many of the Argentines ignored the two polite police officers who had been summoned and attempted to chase the Fifa Co-Player of the Century down the back entrance.

Maradona's third major press conference was a pre-match event in Dubai on Tuesday night, at which he picked out a Spanish-speaking reporter in the room for verbal abuse, the reporter having had earlier asked Maradona a question while not at a press conference.

Then, after dressing down the journalist he added that "this is the proper setting" for a question and let him proceed.

Maradona was asked about driving around Dubai and what he thought of that and, of course, he doesn't actually drive. He has a chauffeur.

He was asked if he feared for Wasl, given they have yet to have a clean sheet during his tenure.

"If you are scared, then don't come and watch the matches," he said. "You can stay at home and watch DVDs or some comedy series. There is nothing to be scared about in football."

If we have learned anything from his public appearances, it is this: he is not another prominent footballer; he is Maradona. He requires security measures never before envisioned, with back entrances, police escorts and minders. The Elvis of football is in the building.

 

poberjuerge@thenational.ae