x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Diego Maradona effect on UAE was in a league of its own

The Argentine manager's stint at Al Wasl, through all the highs and lows, was anything but dull.

Marwan bin Bayat, the former Al Wasl manager, right, said it was good while Diego Maradona lasted.
Marwan bin Bayat, the former Al Wasl manager, right, said it was good while Diego Maradona lasted.

One of the more instructive tales from last season about the arrival of Diego Maradona as Al Wasl coach was of how the life of Tariq Al Sharabi had changed. Al Sharabi is a director of client services at the PR firm Cicero & Bernay, who handled Wasl as a client.

Once Maradona arrived, Al Sharabi's life, as it had been, ceased to exist. Multiple Blackberries, full-house press conferences, dozens of interview requests by the hour from round the world; Maradona became a full-time job.

Al Sharabi did not have time for even a brief holiday all season. Finally, when the campaign ended, he set off to Istanbul for a much-needed respite and a taste again of what life used to be like without Maradona. "Everyone went on a break and there was a change in management," he says. "It was quiet, of course, and I managed to leave town."

Maradona, however, would not allow him peace. "In Istanbul, I had just finished some shopping and was coming back on the Metro when I got a call from the club. They said they have a very important bit of news and it has to go out.

"I said I'm actually out of town but if they email me, I'll send it to office tomorrow and they can handle it. No, no, no, it needs to be handled now, they said, there is no tomorrow. It is major news they said. I said, 'How important?'"

Before they could answer, Al Sharabi guessed, without needing to identify who or what they were talking about. "Did you let go of him?"

It began again: Blackberries, iPads, press releases, phone calls off the hook.

This time, on holiday, on a street bench in Istanbul. "Even when he was all the way in Argentina, probably sleeping, I was extremely busy on a street bench in Istanbul getting phone calls all over the place every single second." It continued, this brief hurricane of Maradona, for another couple of days.

Busy and overworked, Al Sharabi still loved "the unique experience" of last season.

"In the past, it was really hectic but I enjoyed it. This time it wasn't, because even though as a professional I can't be, with [Maradona's departure] it became personal and I was really sad sending out that release."

As in arrival, so in departure is Diego Maradona.

It is precisely the point of Maradona that he impacts at such personal levels as well as at much broader ones: his relationship with Naples, when he was playing for Napoli, is a good example of this.

It is impossible not to be drawn to him even if you don't know him: one official who worked regularly with him last season says despite his Diego-ness – the antics, the statements and tantrums, the scraps – his personality grows on you in joyous little ways.

But Maradona is a supra-being, affecting entire leagues and nations. When Latvia hosted Lithuania in the first World Cup qualifier game on Baltic soil, in August 1992, after the break-up of the old Soviet Union, for instance, a photo of Maradona graced the match programme cover.

The UAE could not fail to feel it, as Yousuf Al Serkal, president of the Football Association, acknowledges. "He got more publicity [for the Pro League]. He is an icon. I'm vice president of [Asian Football Confederation] and during my visits to various Asian countries, in particular, when Maradona was coaching Wasl, I was always asked about how Maradona is, how the league is, how is his team doing.

"People would be talking about it, watching Wasl, so they were becoming famous because of him. People were starting to pay attention to the Pro League and were getting awareness of the league. And that, 80 per cent of it, is Maradona's effect."

Much of the attention outside looking in was Maradona-centric; his spats, his continuing potshots at Pele, his ongoing struggle to be taken seriously as a coach.

When English journalists arrived to cover England's series against Pakistan in the UAE in the winter, Maradona's presence was a kind of prism through which the Pro League was assessed in a stream of side stories.

Wasl felt it to an even greater effect, positively off the field but not so on it. They were not the best club in the land, not by some distance, but they seemed to be the one you heard most from.

Talking in January to The National, the then club head Marwan bin Bayat revealed in some detail the magnitude of that effect. "If we look at the income just from fan attendance, we have reached Dh600,000. I believe this is the largest figure in the UAE," he said.

"It's an increase by 100 per cent on last year, when we did not make more than Dh300,000 from fan attendance. We have just reached the halfway stage of the league and we have already crossed Dh600,000.

"On the marketing side, the club has been able to generate a profit of Dh10 million so far. As far as the return on investments made by the club is concerned, the amount generated is Dh17m.

"So the total from marketing and investment side of the business is Dh27m so far, in the first half of the season."

All this, halfway into a 422-day tenure.

Ultimately, it is easy to forget that in many parts of the world, including the Gulf, Maradona is still loved and respected in the kind of unquestioning way he isn't elsewhere.

In many places he has become a figure of fun, a casualty of celebrity; to many he is an arch controversialist; others view him with equally great degrees of cynicism and exasperation, overexposed to their ears and eyes.

But here, Maradona's - what is the right word, colour? Here, Maradona's colour - the drugs, the politics, the gazillion trivial everyday controversies - all fade away, leaving only awe for his skills, his game and his achievements. "Maradona is like a history of football," says Eisa Ahmed, the Al Wahda and UAE defender.

"Everybody knows that and the whole country was so happy that he was here, in our league as a coach. Personally, he was a great motivation for us as players, his experience, the way he used to play, the ideas that he had."

The day after Wahda beat Wasl in one game last season, Ahmed drove to Dubai especially to meet him. He had photographs taken and a T-shirt autographed.

"His English wasn't great but he was really friendly. My friends in Wasl say he was like a father to them, so kind, so personal and I could see that."

On his appointment at the beginning of the month as an "honorary sports ambassador" with the Dubai Sports Council (DSC), Maradona spoke these legendary words: "I want to change my lifestyle. I want to wear a suit and attend meetings."

Metaphorically, Maradona is as anti-suit as they come (friendship with Fidel Castro is about as emphatic an approval stamp as there can be). And, literally, wearing suits while coaching Argentina wasn't really the look for him.

His new role will not require him to be in Dubai all the time. He will come and go as the DSC needs him, helping out around the world as Dubai tries to bring in more top-flight sport. The logic behind it is solid.

"Maradona is added value for anything," one official says. "He will add value staying here in Dubai for another year. Whatever he does, he will bring everyone's attention to it, just by showing up."

But in a way Maradona detached and distanced is Maradona reduced. As an experience he needs to be wholly invested into; it would have been intriguing to see whether over a longer period of time he could develop the kind of compelling relationship with the region here like he did in Naples.

A consensus - outside of the DSC - can be sensed that though it's good Maradona is still involved with Dubai, it is perhaps not enough, especially for the league.

"It will be affected in terms of publicity," Al Serkal says of Maradona. "He is still part of the sports awareness ideology in Dubai but it isn't the direct effect as when he was coach."

Ahmed reckons, ruefully, that the "vibes will not be the same" when the games are on.

Al Sharabi has "mixed feelings" about it; good that he is still involved, sad that it is not as much.

Incidentally, it is not as though there is not a dissenting note. A reader wrote in to The National's letters pages on September 18, "saddened by how star-struck this region is", at the appointment of Maradona.

"Here, too often, an expert is defined as anyone who is famous, expensive and at least 1,000 miles from home … regardless of his or her competency. A better approach would be to support the talent that is already here."

Life without Maradona will indisputably be a life with less colour. But it can be a fair life still, as the former UAE captain and TV pundit Fahad Ali, is eager to point out.

Ali acknowledges that broadcasters will miss not having Maradona around.

But, he argues, now in its fifth season the Pro League and Wasl may both benefit from concentrating on the football. "Some Wasl supporters disagreed with my view that Maradona might bring media attention but he will also affect the performance of Wasl. And it wasn't a good season for them.

"Clubs are gaining experience, they are preparing more efficiently. There's been an improvement in standards and this season, the Super Cup gave a good idea of how this league will start. The media was concentrating on the game and performance."


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