x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 18 December 2017

Al Wasl's best-kept secret

Albert Benaiges may not attract the attention of Diego Maradona, but his arrival bodes well for Al Wasl's future.

Albert Benaiges, left, has helped procure the talents of Andres Iniesta and Co into world-class footballers at Barcelona.
Albert Benaiges, left, has helped procure the talents of Andres Iniesta and Co into world-class footballers at Barcelona.

From Abu Dhabi to Argentina and anywhere in between, they descended on the Jumeirah Zabeel Saray Hotel in Dubai on Saturday to discover if it really was true, that Diego Maradona, the architect and executioner of the greatest goal in World Cup history and the man only Pele prevented from winning the Fifa Player of the Century gong outright, had agreed to coach Al Wasl.

Yes, the same Wasl who were battling to finish fifth in the Pro League last season while Maradona, as coach of Argentina, was deciphering how to field the attacking riches of Carlos Tevez, Lionel Messi, Gonzalo Higuian, Diego Milito, Angel Di Maria and Sergio Aguero in the same World Cup team.

The scepticism and cynicism enveloping Maradona's arrival was understandable given the lack of clarity and confusion surrounding the finer details of a previous major football-related press conference staged in Dubai: the one which announced that the Royal Emirates Group had agreed a deal to purchase Getafe, the Spanish Primera Liga club.

The Dubai Government were quick to point out they had no connections with the Getafe deal, but they certainly did in luring Maradona to the emirate as Sheikh Ahmed bin Rashid is the owner of Wasl.

Sheikh Ahmed, among other things, is also the Deputy Chairman of Dubai Police and Public Security and his influence was no doubt needed when Maradona was ushered through Dubai International Airport on Friday night.

The next morning, Maradona was being asked by the assembled media about the sincerity of the move, his salary package and his thoughts on the Fifa saga which has shaken football to its core. Ever the showman, Maradona was in captivating form.

Maradona is the biggest name Wasl have hired yet he is not the best coach. The audience, the real football connoisseur, should be clambering for is with Albert Benaiges.

Albert who? He is the Spaniard who has spent nearly two decades as technical director of Barcelona's famed youth system and who has played such an instrumental role shaping the stellar careers of Messi, Xavi and Andres Iniesta.

Wasl have managed to recruit him as their academy director on a five-year contract, meaning he should be immune from the ludicrous high turnover of first-team coaches in the Pro League. He is guaranteed a job back at Barcelona should it not work out anyway. He is the most unheralded aspect of Wasl's summer business yet should turn out to be the most important.

Given over half the Barcelona team who transcended the game of football with such a compelling and jaw-dropping performance in the European Champions League final against Manchester United passed through the club's youth system, experts and coaches should be falling over themselves - in pretty much the same way Sergio Busquets does - to ask Benaiges the secret of the club's unparalleled success.

Patience, you suspect, would feature prominently in his philosophy. This Barcelona team, considered by many as the greatest club side ever, was not assembled over night by the millions of a rich benefactor; it has been groomed for years on the training ground in Catalonia.

The club's adherence to youth and their smooth-passing principles has, tellingly, survived the club's trophy barren years.

Amid the platitudes and garlands being handed out to this side, it is easy to forget Barca, in two periods since 1999, went six years and then three without winning the Primera Liga and a staggering 11 years without winning the premier knockout competition in Spain.

It is a similar fallow spell at Arsenal, who are considered Barca's only peers when it comes to the exponents of the Beautiful Game, which is prompting calls for Arsene Wenger to be jettisoned as manager.

Arsenal, lest we forget, were one of only five teams to defeat Barca this season and had Nicklas Bendnter's first touch in the dying moments of the second leg matched the inflated opinion he has of himself they could have knocked the Spaniards, albeit undeservedly, out of the competition at the last 16 stage. Imagine that.

Wenger is striving manfully to achieve what Pep Guardiola has masterfully managed at Barca. He should be applauded for that, not derided.

"Under Wenger, Arsenal have consistently been the most complete football side I've ever faced. You can talk about Barcelona, AC Milan, Chelsea and Man United all you like, but that Arsenal team featuring Thierry Henry and Patrick Vieira at their peak was the most daunting of all".

That glowing tribute came from Jamie Carragher in his autobiography published in 2008, though the Liverpool defender might want to revise that assertion in subsequent editions following Barca's Wembley masterclass last month.

It turns out you can win trophies by playing attractive football after all. Just ask Benaiges.