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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 23 June 2018

Fujairah in for a roller-coaster season as Diego Maradona displays full gamut of emotions in league opener

Argentine's maiden First Division assignment ends in 1-1 draw against neighbours Al Orouba

Diego Maradona strode out from the tunnel, hands clasped behind his back, baseball cap pulled back-to-front, and seemed content with all that he surveyed.

As one of the most recognisable faces in football, the Argentine has lived the majority of his life through the lens, but on Saturday he found himself what must have felt a million miles removed, tucked away in the north-east of the UAE, overseeing a league match in the second tier of Emirates football.

A World Cup winner, and having managed at a global finals too, Maradona’s latest outpost falls a fair few rungs beneath the glitz and the glamour of where he carved his name as arguably the greatest exponent of the beautiful game. Appointed Fujairah manager in May, the former forward has been tasked with hauling a modest club back into the UAE top flight.

Saturday represented the first few steps on the long road to the Arabian Gulf League, his new side opening their 2017/18 First Division account at home to neighbours Al Orouba.

The Fujairah Stadium, a picturesque little venue with mountains to its left, was hardly full to the brim. The official attendance was 1,050. However many turned out, there was an even blend of locals and expats, not so much there to watch the action but to catch a glimpse of a bona fide superstar. Even if, at 57, he is far from his vintage.

There was the odd Argentina jersey in the stands, a nod to Maradona’s success with his country, most notably when he dragged the team to World Cup glory in 1986. Housed to his left, they were regular shouts of “Diego” and “Maradona” from a section of the club's most vocal supporters. Each one was met with a thumbs-up or a wave of approval. One fan yelled "I love you Maradona!"

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Soon, though, the calls fell on deaf ears. Once the match began, Maradona hollered and he harangued. He clapped encouragement. He berated the officials and swiped a kick at a nearby carton of water.

His instructions were barked in bullet Spanish, his voice hoarse almost from the outset. Mohammed El Naggar, his translator, could hardly keep up, leaping from his seat in the dugout every time Maradona screamed at his players. And that was often.

Watching Maradona could be a sport in itself. Stationed throughout on the edge of his technical area, he appeared always a man on the brink, constantly veering through the emotions, a jack in the box who lives and breathes every kick. At one point, he admonished a ball-boy for returning the ball too quickly.

Diego Maradona, left, is hoisted in the air by Fujairah team manager Yousuf Abdullah after seeing his side take the lead against Al Orouba. Christopher Pike / The National
Diego Maradona, left, is hoisted in the air by Fujairah team manager Yousuf Abdullah after seeing his side take the lead against Al Orouba. Christopher Pike / The National

Fix the gaze only on Maradona, and he could be back at the 2010 World Cup, attempting to lead his Argentina through to another momentous match. For that still constitutes the pinnacle of an otherwise uninspiring coaching career. For now, though, Fujairah forms his vocation.

When they scored, midway through the first half to take the lead, team manager Yousuf Abdullah rushed from the bench and hoisted Maradona with a bear-hug. The pair were promptly swallowed by the rest of the backroom staff, before Maradona emerged eventually and screeched, fists clenched, in celebration. By that stage, his club-issue grey t-shirt was darkened with sweat, despite a relatively temperate November night.

Fujairah had chances to add to their advantage, twice striking the woodwork, twice drawing their manager’s frustrations. Both times, Maradona held his head in his hands, then glanced up to the sky. You would be forgiven for thinking that, all across the 90-plus minutes, his pristine white Pumas barely touched the turf.

Fujairah knew what they were getting. It is all part of the allure. Maradona the magnet; captivating, combustible. Charged with transforming the club, it is hoped he will prove catalytic as well. He has no doubt lifted his newest employers, for everyone around Fujairah Stadium is unrestrained in their praise. Maradona feels like family.

He will need all of that charm to raises spirits, because Fujairah conceded in the second half and had to settle for a point. Only then, was Maradona subdued. He departed the pitch in disappointment, but not before high-fiving and hugging his players. Afterwards, he could be seen slumped in the home dressing room, despondent.

It confirmed what everybody already knew: that Maradona and Fujairah will be a roller-coaster ride.