Despite being far from home, the Argentine is enjoying his time with Al Wasl in Dubai, writes John McAuley.
Al Wasl's Mariano Donda's determined to go the distance
Mariano Donda relaxes on the balcony of his two-bedroom apartment in Dubai Marina. In the distance, to his left, he gazes at Atlantis, the Palm. Below and to his right sprawls Emirates Golf Club, although Donda does not feel he has the patience for the game to warrant membership.
Adjacent to an L-shaped cream sofa, a wide-screen television stands idle in the living room; two photos sit alongside it. In one, his sister's infant daughter, Delfina, wishing her uncle a happy 29th birthday - "Te quiero mucho" ["I love you very much"]; the other, Donda and younger brother Bruno enjoying time together in the mountains of Mendoza province.
The absence of additional photos is deliberate. Any more and the mind wanders back to his native Argentina, reviving regrets that he sees his family barely once a year.
The decor, largely whites and blacks, is sophisticated - the touch of his Italian partner, an interior designer - but not overblown, much like Donda himself. He may be a footballer but he is educated, having heeded his mother's advice when, at 19, a young man of genuine sporting ability allocated three years to studying physiotherapy at a university in Buenos Aires.
That was before he decided the beautiful game would forge his future - although the playmaker, unlike many of his contemporaries, has not let its trappings consume him.
He has no obvious tattoos and his jewellery is restricted to a silver bracelet and simple watch. He wears a white T-shirt, plain navy shorts, trainers and a sincere smile.
Humility and footballers are not familiar bedfellows; Donda seems an exception.
"My English - I know only 100 to 150 words," he says apologetically, before conversing, engagingly and expressively, in his third language - he can speak Italian, the by-product of three years with Bari - for more than an hour.
"The players respect him so much," Donda says. "We are with him, always in the stadium or changing room.
"From the first time I met Bruno I could see he's a positive man, very strong. But now he must be quiet, be with his family and trust the Dubai doctors. We all hope, with God's help, that he can recover. This is the most important match he'll ever face. Football is nothing. Your family comes first, and then your health. It was hard when I heard the news because I'm far away from my family. I asked myself: 'What am I doing here? What is real life? Should I remain here when I see my family only 20 days a year?'"
The distance from loved ones clearly affects Donda, but he finds comfort in setting an example for his brother, nine years his junior.
Bruno Donda is working towards a computer science degree, assisted financially by his older sibling. Mariano routinely reminds Bruno how studying "opens your mind".
"When you are young you want the mobile, the car and the money, but as time passes you realise first you need to sacrifice, you need to work hard to have the big apartment or big car," he says. "If you have everything quickly you can't taste it. You don't appreciate it as much.
"When I left for Italy my brother was 14, so it was a difficult decision because he was like my son. But he can visit me once a year; for him that's motivation. To see me in a better part of the world, working and doing what I've always wanted. You have to make your own way."
The opportunity last June to continue his career in Dubai was too good to refuse, especially when Donda received a phone call from an Argentine hero.
Having fallen out of favour in capricious conditions at Bari - five managers impacted his three seasons at Stadio San Nicola - Donda excelled back home at Godoy Cruz, playing a key role in the side's rise to third in the Primera Division.
That convinced Diego Maradona, then newly appointed as Wasl coach, to lift the phone, although Donda spent the opening exchanges of the conversation convinced it was a cruel prank.
Its authenticity realised, the decision was made in an instant to join Wasl, yet the Byzantine discussions between the player and a reluctant Godoy Cruz president ensured a fraught few days that concluded only after a lonely, 12-hour drive from Mendoza to Buenos Aires, and then a 28-hour journey by air to Dubai.
"I met Maradona the first time in the Wasl gym," Donda recalls. "He said 'Thank you for coming' when I should've been thanking him. That made all the sacrifice to come here worth it."
Despite a season of individual success, during which he was widely recognised as one of the elite players in the Pro League, Donda grew frustrated with the team's results, as Wasl fell to eighth in the Pro League and let slip a chance to seal silverware by losing a contentious second leg of the GCC Champions League final.
The mayhem that regularly attaches itself to Maradona eventually told when the club dismissed him shortly after the GCC match. Donda, though, describes the year as "a great experience". He considers carefully when asked what advice from Maradona he cherishes most.
"He told me once that glory has got a price, but you can't buy it in a shop," Donda says. "Here we have everything: good weather, good life, good food, security, everything. But you need to crave glory every time. Not just in football, you always have to become the best in what you do. I took this for my life, too."
Donda's dedication to be the best is often misinterpreted on the pitch as arrogance, where he demands more from teammates.
Typically, a colleague is berated for delaying a pass or choosing the wrong option, but Donda bristles at suggestions he is a leader on the pitch - "that's for a big name, I just try to set an example in training" - and attributes his expectations to an aching desire to win.
"It's our passion," he says. "I wake up in the morning thinking about football and it's the last thing on my mind when I go to sleep. The time that changes I'll take my ticket and go to another job.
"A footballer tries always to win, whether a friendly match, Pro League, or Etisalat Cup. So I try to transmit my mentality to teammates.
"Foreign players come to the UAE to help locals become better, but for it to happen they must feel themselves the need to change. If they don't apply themselves or take care off the pitch, they don't have my respect.
"On the pitch, you see everything, it speaks sometimes. I tell them you have only one life, that if we want to change we have to do it today.
"We need to feel honoured to play football because there are many people in the world who'd love to be in our position. That opportunity arrives only once and if you're not prepared, the train passes."
Donda, now 30, plans to retire within four years: "I don't want to play with my tongue hanging out." He also wants to spend time with his family, even create his own. For now, football remains his focus.
"When you decide to finish your career, nobody calls you," he says. "The telephone stops. So the chance to change the outcome, change your future, is now. You must grab the opportunity.
"I try to be thankful every day for where I am. I want to play and win for Al Wasl."
Donda will not be content until he avenges June's penalty shootout defeat to Al Muharraq, the Bahrain side. The loss sealed Maradona's fate and affected Donda so profoundly that when he returned to his apartment he considered buying a one-way ticket to Argentina.
"If we play that game 10 times more it would be impossible to lose," he says. "After, I felt very strange: tired and sad. I tried to look for answers and to understand better that when you have an opportunity you must take it.
"Football is my profession and I'll be a footballer in some way to the last day of my life. But if you want to enjoy it you should go play with friends because for a professional it's difficult.
"In 90 minutes, you have too much to win or lose. I need time after a game to start my life again. I sit for some hours, alone. Like a computer, I need to reboot.
"But I've changed my individual goals this year for the team's. Because we play for another person now, someone on the outside that is in a difficult moment. We want to give him victory … a title … something good. We want to give him something to smile about, to help him in this serious time."
Thoughts, understandably, drift to family in Argentina.
"To see their faces when they come to Dubai tells me I'm doing the right thing," he says. "In Argentina there's no respect. Everybody wants to take, get more than they deserve, but nobody touches anything here. It's safe.
"There, when I left the house I'd be aware what watch I was wearing, always drive a small car. If I had a BMW it'd be too much risk for my family.
"Nobody puts photos of me on Facebook because people will see them and think I'm in Disney.
"But this is not Disney - you need to work, and hard. It's very competitive; nothing is gifted here. People have the wrong mentality about Dubai. I've a nice apartment but I would live in a park, no problem. I can eat in the best restaurant in Dubai, yet I would be happy in Safa Park, with a sandwich."
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