x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Dawn of the Yellow Empire at Al Wasl

Sheikh Ahmed bin Rashid hiring Diego Maradona as Al Wasl coach signals club's intent, but still plenty of work to be done.

Francisco Yeste, left, the Al Wasl midfielder, has arguably been the best foreign import in the Pro League this season. Diego Maradona, the team's new coach, should look to build a team around the Spaniard.
Francisco Yeste, left, the Al Wasl midfielder, has arguably been the best foreign import in the Pro League this season. Diego Maradona, the team's new coach, should look to build a team around the Spaniard.

It was surely coincidence that the khandoura Sheikh Ahmed bin Rashid wore to a recent sports awards ceremony in Abu Dhabi was black and gold. Neither the event nor the khandoura had anything to do with Sheikh Ahmed's football team, Al Wasl, who play in the same two colours. Yet we can be sure football was discussed.

Sheikh Ahmed, in his capacity as chairman of the UAE Olympic Committee, was honouring 234 of the country's athletes alongside Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed. Both men are ardent football supporters, with Sheikh Mansour owning both Al Jazira and Manchester City.

It is not unrealistic to presume Sheikh Mansour's recently realised ambition of bringing a trophy to the blue side of Manchester and raising the profile of his new club influenced his fellow club owner. For two weeks later, in much the same way City planted a sky-blue flag in world football by signing Robinho on deadline day for a then British record fee of £32.5 million (Dh193.4m), Wasl announced that Diego Maradona will coach the Yellow Empire next season.

The Argentine's decision resulted in a frenzy of media interest at Monday night's game between Wasl and Jazira at Zabeel Stadium, despite the absences of Sheikh Ahmed, Sheikh Mansour and Maradona.

And it was perhaps just as well. If, come September, Maradona's new home is going to be the 12,000-seater stadium - located close to the Grand Hyatt Hotel - the security will have to improve.

As the fans shouted the Argentinian's name outside the ground on Monday, this reporter was able to walk untroubled past the suited guard and into the dressing room. Green Point Stadium this was not.

The scene of Maradona's last managerial appearance, Argentina's 4-0 humbling by Germany in the quarter-finals of last summer's World Cup in Cape Town, could not be more dissimilar from what will greet him on his Pro League debut later this year.

The stadium's media internet connection failed midway through the first half and the stands never reached more than a quarter of their capacity. Both issues will need to be rectified before the world's focus falls on Wasl in four months time.

Yet the club itself is steeped in history. Founded in 1974 by Sheikh Ahmed, a brother of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, the club have won seven league championships and three domestic cup competitions and, last year, secured their first GCC Club Cup.

In 1993, they achieved their best Asian Champions League finish, progressing to the semi-finals before losing to Al Shabab of Saudi Arabia on penalties.

They defeated the Japanese side Yomiuri (now called Tokyo Verdy) 4-3 in the contest for third place.

Maradona is not the first noteworthy coach to take the helm, although he is undoubtedly a league above any predecessor in terms of profile. Hassan Shehata, who has since led Egypt to three African Cup of Nations titles, coached Wasl for two seasons in the mid-1980s, while Josef Hickersberger, now of Al Wahda but formerly in charge of the Austrian and Bahraini national teams, worked with Wasl at the turn of the century.

One of the most intriguing aspects of Maradona's appointment will be the faces he brings to the club, both at playing level and the backroom staff. Not renowned for his tactical aptitude, Maradona surrounds himself with clever tacticians and management personnel.

Hector Enrique and Alejandro Mancuso, who both worked with him during his spell with the Argentina national team, are sure to travel with him on this foreign adventure.

Already in place at Wasl is Albert Benaiges, who was employed as director of youth development earlier this year. The former co-ordinator of Barcelona's youth teams is widely credited for honing the talents of players such as Lionel Messi and Gerard Pique, and will be hoping to do likewise with Wasl's Emirati youths.

With Pro League rules limiting each team to only four foreign players - and only three on the pitch at any one time - Maradona will be forced to work predominantly with Emirati players. But he will undoubtedly be intent on strengthening his quota of foreign players. Currently, the senior team employ Francisco Yeste of Spain, the Brazilian Alexandre Oliveira and the Omani defender Mohammed Abdullah.

Edson Puch, the Chile international, joins the team on a four-year deal next season, and that would seem to limit the options for further foreign investment.

With one of the game's greatest players now in charge and money apparently available for potential targets, the prospect will be tempting. This latest chapter in Al Wasl's 37-year history is primed to be its most exciting yet.