x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Diego Maradona: shopper, mentor and friend

Since rocking the football world by joining Al Wasl, El Diego has embraced life in Dubai and has enriched the league and the lives of many

The value Diego Maradona brings to Al Wasl is not just footballing, but monetary as well, which is already evident.
The value Diego Maradona brings to Al Wasl is not just footballing, but monetary as well, which is already evident.

We must begin with trivia, for that is what celebrity is about.

When signing an autograph, he spells out D-I-E-G-O, draws an M and scribbles an indecipherable "aradona". The coup de grace is the encircled number 10, his shirt number, to ensure that we do not mistake him for another Maradona or even Madonna, if she was ever to be called Diego.

John Lennon often drew a self-portrait after his autographs, so that is the level of celebrity we are talking of.

Appreciate that the autograph takes time to complete and he does it for fan after fan after fan, at the stadium, in malls, at schools, wherever he goes.

Few men have greater demands made of their time, yet Naser Obaid, the Argentine's personal local guide, says he is remarkably obliging with such things.

So, more trivia.

He is, according to his club, the third-highest-paid coach here.

Though he does not go out much, Maradona of Dubai likes to go shopping, often to Carrefour at the Mall of Emirates.

He has a taste for Lebanese cuisine and he likes the Burj Al Arab, as unique an architectural construction as Maradona is a human one.

He appears comfortable in Dubai, says Obaid, because he can move without the entourage that is an extension of his body elsewhere.

He has only picked up ta'al or "come" so far, but he is eager to learn more Arabic.

When considering Maradona, these details matter. Al Wasl still receive inquiries from abroad about where Maradona lives, who his neighbours are, what car he drives.

Ernesto Ise, an Argentine journalist, says people there want to see the house he lives in, inside and out, what he does daily, how he is coping with the culture, and more.

They matter because to confine the effect of Maradona to just football would be to miss the point of Maradona in the UAE entirely.

Dubai is stirring. Locals agree that when Maradona arrived he added more life and commotion to the city. Everyone is talking about him. His celebrity rubs off on to people photographed with him.

Before he arrived at Wasl, the energetic Tariq Al Sharabi was doing routine public relations for the club as director of client services at the PR firm, Cicero & Bernay. Now, Maradona is a full-time job.

"As soon as the Maradona announcement happened, within 24 hours, everything changed," he said.

"My phone, the office phone, my e-mail, everything went off the hook. People from all over the world were getting in touch.

"Things changed at work. For press conferences you had to get the media to come. Now, we don't need to even call people. They come themselves.

"Guys send me e-mails and if I can't answer, they'll keep calling me. Before I used to follow up. That has turned around completely."

Everyone wants a piece of Maradona. People, brands, banks and restaurants ask will he come to this inauguration, to that launch, to cut this ribbon here?

Of course they do, who could blame them? Some begin by asking for Wasl players, before meekly getting to the point and asking for Maradona.

Most are turned down but the few public appearances he has made speak unmistakably of a man of the people, any people.

He visited the Al Noor training centre for children with special needs to inaugurate an indoor tournament and ended up taking a penalty, playing keep-up and then facing some penalty kicks.

"He was great with the children, lots of hugging and playing around with them," said Raed Matarbazi of the centre.

"He was there with a translator but spent a good hour and would've stayed on for more activities but for time."

Later in the month at a more sombre occasion, his grieving with the family of the UAE footballer, Theyab Awana, who was killed in a car crash, did not seem as awkward as such occasions often are.

Obaid, who shadows the South American for much of the day, burnishes this barest sketch of a man, not the public figure. Before he arrived, Obaid considered the public perception of Maradona and, understandably, found himself a little concerned. He was to be surprised.

"I didn't expect him to be this pleasant and easy to deal with," he said.

Obaid's mother fell ill recently and when he asked Maradona if he could be excused, Maradona told him he should have just gone, without asking. "He asks after her health regularly even now. Even his family does."

These are mere snippets, but their cadence, about Maradona, his touch and his effect, is unmissable.

Such is the burden of being Maradona that his impact must be assessed not only on his club's football, but on the league and the region.

The Pro League is buzzing, the most it has ever done, say some. Other big names have followed Maradona. More are expected to arrive.

The early signs - and this is very early - reveal discernible impact. Attendances have long been a concern of the league, as pointed out in a recent visit by the Asian Football Confederation (AFC).

Last week, at the end of the third round of the Etisalat Cup, the league said there had been an increase in attendance of 156 per cent from the corresponding period last season: over 18 games this term there were 33,801 spectators, compared to 13,193 last season. Journalists at the Wasl-Al Wahda game confirm more than 5,000 came, the highest this season.

"It's made us the focal point of football over the last month or so," said Carlo Nohra, Al Ain's chief executive and former league chief. "The world wants to know how he copes.

"There's been a positive impact on attendances and significantly on the perception of expats here who love football but haven't followed the local league. It's a great opportunity for promotion."

Nohra believes it will take more than Maradona alone to propel further spectator growth, but that is actually comforting in a way, because to invest so much in one man is often folly.

What about Wasl? On-field results have been Maradona-esque (at least on evidence of his coaching record): two won, two lost, many scored, many conceded including five in a defeat to minnows, Dubai.

The sample is small, inconclusive but compelling. More will emerge later in the season about how players react.

In any case, the work of Albert Benaiges, the former head of Barcelona's famed La Masia youth academy, as Wasl's academy head, is the one to closely monitor in that regard.

And it is not as if the club brought Maradona purely for his footballing acumen. That would be to limit the very grandness of the venture, in fact. On the club's Twitter feed, Marwan bin Bayat, the Wasl chairman, revealed that the season's VIP tickets sold out in a couple of hours.

"We have a lot of sponsorship offers," he said. "We are studying all of them carefully at the moment."

Later this month, club shirts, with player name and number, will be on sale at the club shop and retail outlets. It is clever stuff, and important because the other issue the AFC raised was the financial modelling of clubs and their dependence on government funding.

The league says that has lessened considerably over the last year. Wasl are drawing out a new path.

Rivals are happy to appear happy about it, but make sure to leave a little spice in the aftertaste. "Maradona's arrival has done much good for the league," one player said, but "what he does or achieves as coach is another matter."

As another example, Al Nasr felt it necessary to remind everyone recently that they have been reaching out to the outside world far longer. And that, though Maradona's arrival is good news, Wasl are not a title threat.

On Twitter, bin Bayat said: "Some of the best UAE players contacted us to join Al Wasl and be managed by Maradona, their clubs declined the move."

It is the kind of healthy banter that livens up seasons. And it should be asked which club in the entire developing world of football would not have taken on Maradona?

The world looks on, and looks in. Argentina loves Lionel Messi now, said Ise, and follows his progress obsessively.

But Maradona is beyond that.

"Because of him," Ise said, "there is great curiosity about Dubai, more than there would've been had he gone to Europe."

They might discover that the cynicism surrounding this delicious enterprise is unwarranted, that it disrespects the deep love for football here and misunderstands its manifestation.

But these conclusions - and those about how he, Wasl and the league fare - are for later.

For now, let it sink in that Maradona - Maradona! - is here. It is an irresistible prospect.


Follow The National Sport on @SprtNationalUAE & Osman Samiuddin on @OsmanSamiuddin