x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Only time will judge Maradona's impact

The crowd may have been relatively small in number, but many of those who were there were fevered in their enthusiasm for "El Diego".

Wherever he goes, Diego Maradona likes to wear two watches. One to tell him the time of where he is in the world, and the other displaying the time in his native Argentina, so he can work out whether his granddaughter is awake or not.

The Argentine great has never seemed the sort to pine for home. If he was ever in any doubt as to just how far away his new job is from all that he knows best, he was given a graphic illustration last night as he watched his Al Wasl charges in action for the first time.

Barely a thousand people cared to battle the rush hour traffic to watch two mid-ranking sides play out the last rites of the Pro League season.

Even the incentive of seeing one of the game's greats in the flesh had its limitations. "I am not a player anymore, I am a trainer," Maradona said on his official unveiling as the club's new coach, on Saturday.

More is the pity. Watching him sit in a stand is not the most thrilling pastime, even if he does ooze charisma.

As he sat down in the directors' box, he was faced with a large flatscreen television showing him taking his place in the VVIP section. Even he looked a little unnerved by it.

He had made his entry 20 minutes after the kick-off, and, as he did, a small yet voluble group of Wasl supporters on the opposite side of the ground broke into a clearly well-rehearsed song.

One supporter, wearing a yellow and black shirt bearing the same image of Che Guevara that is tattooed on Maradona's arm, beat a drum while the group sang, "Diego, Diego, Diego Maradona!"

The icon stood and waved to them - left-handed, naturally - but the songs soon petered out.

Zabeel Stadium is never going to be confused with La Bombanera, the pulsing home ground of Maradona's favourite team, Boca Juniors. Especially not on nights like this.

The colloquial name of Boca's home ground translates as "Chocolate Box". In comparison, Zabeel Stadium, Wasl's home seemed more like a small, shiny biscuit tin with all the custard creams missing.

Perhaps it will be different when Maradona is prowling the touchlines of the Pro League next season with all his characteristic combustibility.

The crowd may have been relatively small in number, but many of those who were there were fevered in their enthusiasm for "El Diego".

Obaid bin Abar, 44, has been a fan of Wasl since he first went there to play basketball in 1976. Even as the call to prayer sounded, 30 minutes before kick off last night, he was excited to greet any new faces to his club.

"Welcome to Al Wasl!" he said, breaking stride as he made his way to the mosque outside the ground's main stand.

"Having Maradona here is wonderful for us. He is unique in football. I do not say if he is a good coach or not, or if he can improve the players.

"What is certain is he will lift everything here. He is someone amazing, someone very special in football."

Abdulla Malalaa, a pupil at Dubai International School, wore his yellow Wasl shirt with similar pride.

Aged 13, he was too young ever to watch Maradona in action, but he still appreciates his legend.

"I am too young and never saw him play, but I know him because he is one of the most famous players ever," he said.

"I have seen him lots on videos and on YouTube. It is amazing he has come to Al Wasl."

As the last minutes of the pre-Maradona era ticked down on the field, the home side's fans waved goodbye to the past as they unfurled two huge banners in tribute to Alexandre Oliveira, their departing winger.

The future may be bright, but the supporters are grateful to those who have gone before Maradona, too.

"I wanted to see the legend, the one and only Maradona - but I also want to say goodbye to Oliveira," Rami Muhanna, 29, a Jordanian who has supported Wasl since moving to Dubai six years ago, said.

"I was completely shocked [when it was announced Maradona was coming].

"I just thought it must be another rumour, but then this is Dubai after all - anything is possible."

 

pradley@thenational.ae