x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Maradona's sacking had a sense of inevitability

Maradona did himself no favours when he said, a bit later: "I don't regret anything I did this season."

Diego Maradona's record as coach remains slim.
Diego Maradona's record as coach remains slim.

From the day Diego Maradona was hired by Al Wasl, we began to consider the circumstances of his more-inevitable-than-usual firing.

In our mind's eye we saw him going out in a cataclysmic blaze of anger and hard words, unable to kerb his volcanic emotions. It is a curious twist that it was his inability to instil self-control in his players that brought him down.

An atrocious performance by Wasl in the second leg of the GCC Champions League, at the Zabeel Stadium on June 10, set off the chain of events that led, exactly one month later, to his dismissal.

It was not a technical collapse that led to the exit, though Wasl were poor; it was the lack of discipline throughout his side that was fatal: two red cards and players bickering with each other in full view of a national television audience and a nearly packed Zabeel Stadium.

They had won the first leg 3-1, and the run-up to the second leg assumed a Wasl victory and Maradona's first trophy as a club coach. It was to be a coronation for Wasl, vindication for their coach.

But Majed Naser and Rashid Essa were sent off and Muharraq forced a shootout, and won it. The fireworks and confetti cannon Wasl had brought in for the celebration were instead shot off for the benefit of the Bahraini side.

It was a moment of humiliation for Wasl, and many of their fans vented their anger by heaping verbal abuse on the famously intemperate Naser when he appeared on the pitch to collect a silver medal.

Maradona did himself no favours when he said, a bit later: "I don't regret anything I did this season." It was a tone-deaf moment when a bit of humility was badly needed.

Wasl needed a new board, and blunt criticism of Maradona from Sheikh Ahmed bin Rashid, but last night they dismissed the Argentine.

A brilliant player, Maradona's bona fides as a coach remain slim. Three victories from 23 games in Argentina in the 1990s; 20 from 44 games in the UAE.

That he inspired and drove Wasl, for a time, must be conceded. The players seemed desperate to please him, and get one of those big hugs he distributed so freely in the early months.

He chose wisely in the acquisition of the playmaker Mariano Donda and the striker Juan Manuel Olivera. His fame seemed to intimidate referees, who indulged his many colourful rants.

Wasl reaped a level of global recognition unknown for a UAE club. His first press conference was heavily attended and translated into three languages. Wasl executives spoke of marketing coups and record hits on their website. Wasl away games were the best-attended in the league.

The hubbub eventually settled down to a dull roar, but Maradona remained a focal point; everyone in the country seemed to want their picture taken with him, and a significant fraction succeeded.

It was unclear, however, if anyone in the side was the better for his leadership. After winning 21 points from 13 league games, Wasl imploded. They seemed physically and perhaps emotionally exhausted, especially the influential Donda, whose contempt for his Emirati teammates was plain to see in the Muharraq meltdown. Wasl won five points from their final nine league games.

Maradona several times complained about his squad. He questioned the club's professionalism. He threatened to leave if he was not given more money to spend in the coming season.

Eventually, the former board called him in and, to the surprise of many, he emerged chastened and cooperative, and his serial criticisms of his players and club management all but ceased. It seemed a late-arriving moment of maturity for a 51-year-old man; he had accepted that Wasl were treating him well, and that the budget was not limitless.

That new serenity was never transmitted to his players, however, and they fell to pieces in the game that would have brought him a second season in Dubai.

Where does he go from here? Will another club in the region find intriguing the notion of sudden exposure? Has he done enough to warrant a job in his homeland? This much is clear: he seems to find purpose and fulfilment in coaching, even if the results are often lacking.

He will not soon be forgotten, but Wasl may not have much trouble finding a coach who can bring them results, and not just notoriety.


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