x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Love him or hate him, you cannot ignore Diego Maradona

If 'Maradona is the story of football', everyone is trying to read it with respect or scepticism, and it remains to be seen how long his romance with UAE football will last.

Many are sceptical that the Argentine great will last his two-year contract.
Many are sceptical that the Argentine great will last his two-year contract.

Late into the President's Cup match between Al Wasl and Al Ahli, a ball came flying towards Diego Maradona in the dugout. The Argentine legend, showing a glimpse of his sublime skills, chested it down, juggled the ball for a bit on his feet and shoulders before kicking it towards the ball boy.

Even the seething Ahli fans had to grudgingly applaud that show. Their team were down by three goals at the time, and they had been barracking their club's officials, who were sitting a few metres away in the VIP stand.

One of them turned again towards the mandarins and said: "You should sign Maradona; he is still better than all these players."

Maradona, of course, was oblivious to those comments. He was in world of his own, bouncing around like an excited teen and pumping his fists triumphantly.

That night, "El Diego" seemed a different man to the one seen a week earlier in Al Ain, when he tersely waved Olaroiu Cosmin away as the home team coach walked towards him to shake hands.

Cosmin had made some unsavoury comments about Maradona's chequered past after an Etisalat Cup match in November and the Romanian was trying to patch things up, but Mardona was not in a forgiving mood.

He called the Romanian "rude" and on Friday night, Maradona gave an unflattering assessment of Cosmin's coaching abilities.

"Al Ain are a very good team, regardless of their coach," Maradona said when asked about Al Ain's chances of capturing the Pro League title. "They are a really tough team and the credit belongs to the players alone, not the coaching abilities of their coach.

"He [Cosmin] is just looking for a bit of fame through controversy. People like [Al Ahli coach Quique Sanchez] Flores, [Al Nasr coach Walter] Zenga and me are all known for our achievements in the world of sports. I cannot say the same about Cosmin.

"He has got some great players like [Asamoah] Gyan and others to help him. If he was coaching another team, I don't think he would last long. He would probably be sacked and sent home."

That statement brought a few laughs out of the assembled media, but Cosmin will certainly not be amused. The Al Ain coach, however, should count himself lucky that Maradona did not get personal.

Those who know Maradona know it could have got worse; he has a long history of run-ins and is not a man who minces his words. Many commentators having been running a countdown since Al Wasl announced their stunning deal with Maradona in May, speculating on just how long his unrestrained candour would play in the UAE.

In June, the Rolling Stone ME magazine talked about why "Maradona-plus-Dubai was not a match made in heaven".

According to the magazine, the chances of him simply "saying the wrong thing to the wrong person at the wrong time was too great".

To the disappointment of his baiters, though, nothing of that sort has happened. rom him.

He has kicked a fan, criticised his players for not being regular at training and talked about the poor refereeing standards, but according to Zenga, a long-time rival and friend, his criticism might actually be good for the game here.

"What Maradona says after a game should not be considered as criticism," said Zenga, the former Italy and Inter Milan goalkeeper. "Instead, he talks because of his desire to improve the game here and help people learn from their mistakes.

"So he is trying to help and not run down people. That is our [Maradona and Zenga's] joint goal - to promote UAE football through our experiences and help the game improve here. I agree with Maradona's comments about refereeing and professionalism."

Ali Bujsaim, a former UAE international referee and former chairman of the UAE Football Association's Referees Committee, also agrees Maradona is not trying to run down officials or put pressure on them. "His complaints are normal and you will hear such things from most people," Bujsaim said.

"He understands that referees make mistakes too, and he tries to point them out."

Not all officials, though, are keen on hearing Maradona out. During the match against Al Ain, the fourth official allegedly warned him to stay in his seat or face an expulsion.

On Friday night, he met with a similar riposte after challenging the five minutes of injury time.

"There was a bit extra time given considering that we made only two substitutions and the ball didn't stop that much," Maradona said after the game, which ended 2-2 following Linardo Lima's equaliser for Al Nasr in the sixth minute of injury time.

"I spoke to the fourth official about it, saying five minutes is a bit too much. He said: 'Please don't make me add another two minutes'."

Maradona took the result graciously though, giving Zenga a warm hug after the game.

"Me and Maradona are friends," Zenga said.

"Even if I had lost this game, I would have gone to him and given him a hug because this is respect.

"Before the match, me and Maradona had a talk and I told him: 'Diego, whatever the result, the first person I am going to shake hands with is you.'

"I find some coaches here who never shake hands and after a match they say: 'This is not football and blah, blah.'

"I believe the most important thing in life is respect. I can be a good coach or a bad coach, this is part of life, but there is always respect for the other people in my heart."

According to Zenga, Maradona, Fifa's Joint Player of the Century, deserves all the adulation and respect he gets for taking football to new levels.

"Personally, I would like to remember that I was the best goalkeeper in the world three times," the Italian said. "It's good, but Diego is Diego and you just cannot not have respect for a person like him.

"Maradona is the story of football. If football exists today, it is because of Maradona."

The respect between Maradona and Zenga is mutual. They are two of the biggest names in the game, but the similarities do not stop there - both have colourful personalities, often court controversies and are blunt with their opinions. They share a similar passion towards their job here, and insist their personalities do not make their task any tougher.

"Sometimes we talk about things because we don't understand why we have to stop the League and play the President's Cup," Zenga said.

"I don't understand why we need to stop when the Olympic team is playing. So there are some questions, but I am very happy here, and very proud to be coaching here. I have some great players in my team and I feel really good."

"I am very happy being here," Maradona said. "I enjoy my work here. I have a very good relationship with Flores and Zenga.

"After the [Nasr] match, Zenga wished me well for Christmas. Of course, it did not feel as nice after a draw, but it was a very nice gesture from him."

Maradona's arrival has obviously changed the game in the country. There were more Al Nasr fans at Al Wasl on Friday night than you would normally see at their home games. And Maradona has not just been drawing crowds in huge numbers at every game, but he has also taken UAE football to every nook and cranny of the world.

"Maradona has brought in the enthusiasm that this league lacked in the past," said Mohammed Omar, a former UAE captain.

"We lacked such a spirited personality in the past and you can see the changes that it is bringing about in the football here. You can see that in the way every team play against Wasl - they all want to win against Maradona's team."

For some players, the mere presence of Maradona in their midst is a dream in itself.

"To just see Maradona in flesh is a dream," said Adel Abdulla, the Al Shabab captain. "To be on the same pitch as Maradona, I cannot describe the feeling. It's a lot bigger than a dream.

"I am jealous of the Al Wasl players really; they are able to shake his hand and hug him. We get really jealous when I see the Wasl players jumping on Maradona. He is the best thing to happen to the league."

Maradona has also managed to convert some of his critics as well. Former England international Peter Reid, who played against Argentina in the 1986 World Cup quarter-final when the Argentine scored, what is now called the "Hand of God" goal and a second that regularly tops the lists of football's greatest goals, had insisted Maradona is "still a cheat" in a column in June.

Last month, he visited Maradona at Al Wasl, called him a "top man" and kissed his left hand.

He also won hearts when he arrived at the late Theyab Awana's house to offer his condolences to the bereaving family.

"There are bigger things in life than football," Maradona said. "Matches are won and lost, and life goes on. But the real things in life are these tragedies that people face.

"These are the things that you have to stop and take some time to think about."

There is the other side as well - those who do not see Maradona as anything more than a gimmick.

"It's pure marketing," Andre Wetzel, a technical director at Al Jazira, told Dutch website Voetbal International in September.

"Wherever Maradona is, there is a camera, so I understand Al Wasl's decision. But you can't call Maradona a coach, he's a circus act."

The "act" is proving to be a big hit with the fans and media though, and most neutrals will be wishing it lasts more than the two years that he has committed to Wasl.

"He is black or white," said Abdullah Khalid, a Wasl fan.

"He will never be grey. So there will always be people who will not like him, but we all love him and hope he stays here for a long time."

 

arizvi@thenational.ae

 

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