x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Time waits for just one man

Ever the showman, the Argentine legend Diego Maradona put on a spell-binding show for the assembled journalists in Dubai.

He was fashionably late, of course. But when he entered the plush theatre of the Jumeirah Zabeel Saray Hotel in Dubai, Diego Maradona could have kept the room waiting for 10 days and he would still have received a standing ovation.

The Argentine only had to walk in front of the 100-plus media in attendance to get a round of applause. It was his first of more than 20. Every answer, no matter how straightforward, was greeted with the same enthusiastic response.

And if there is something Maradona likes, it is attention. He got plenty of that yesterday.

He looked fit and healthy, not fat, but maybe carrying a few extra pounds here and there and his beard was spreckled with grey hair. But for a 50 year old who had led his life, the man appeared to be in great shape.

There was a small entourage with him, including his ex-wife Villafane, who divorced him in 2004, but has remained by his side ever since.

Most journalists had gathered at the press conference venue at 11am, a good half-hour early, to prepare to welcome to the UAE the most naturally gifted footballer ever to walk the planet.

The banner behind the table on the stage where it all took place read: "The Official Press Conference to Unveil Al Wasl Football Club's Head Coach Diego Maradona."

Just in case we had forgotten why we were there.

The room filled up quickly. Camera crews jostled for position and there were maybe 20 microphones on the table. And we waited, waited some more and then, at 12.51pm, Diego Maradona strode into the room alongside Marwan bin Bayat, the Wasl chairman, who said: "It gives me great honour to unveil Al Wasl FC's head coach. This is history making."

And then it was Maradona's turn. He may have been a bit on the late-ish side, but he wasted no time in telling us why he was here, the type of player he would like to sign, what he would bring to this job, how much he wasn't getting paid and why Fifa, in his opinion, was corrupt.

It was truly entertaining stuff. He jumped from subject to subject with skill similar to the way he used to skip past defenders.

"I feel good to have this challenge. I did not expect this challenge. I feel the same way as when I was coach of my national team, Argentina. I will tell the players that if they do not commit themselves to the team, there is no point in playing," Maradona said. It was a good start.

When it was put to him that the story doing the rounds was that Wasl were paying him US$8million (Dh29m) a year, it brought a smile to his face.

I personally hoped he was going to say that he wouldn't get out of bed for that amount, but instead he insisted: "We are very far away from those numbers. I am not a player now. I am a coach. It is the players who make all the money now. The coaches don't."

He was questioned about his lack of coaching success. This suggestion earned a wag of the finger and a hard stare. The questioner immediately regretted his outburst.

"I am not going to steal from anyone. If I was called to do this work, there must be a reason for that.

"There are a lot of people who don't like me. But I sleep peacefully because there are a lot of people who love me."

Then Sepp Blatter, the Fifa president, and his cohorts got it both barrels. You could have heard a pin drop as his words were being translated over the radio from Spanish into Arabic and English. We were hanging on to every syllable.

He said: "I have been asked to join the Fifa family. I say to them, what family? I do not deal with corrupt people."

And then, just short of an hour, it ended.

There was cheering and singing of Maradona's name from fans as he posed with the Wasl board for photographs.

He raised his hands in triumph and, to be fair, it had been a brilliant press conference.

He then disappeared behind a curtain like the proper showman he is.

It was a fantastic performance. Not quite England, the Aztec Stadium and 1986, but none of us in the room could take our eyes off him.

The Wasl officials, of which there were many, looked happy and also relieved it was all over. Would it be fair to assume that some even inside the club did not believe Maradona would be back in Dubai?

The press pack was buzzing after the show ended. But not so excited they couldn't gorge themselves on the superb buffet laid on by Wasl. Well, it is not every day Diego Maradona comes to town, so it was a culinary feast.

Everyone fell in love with the little man for that hour. We all agreed that he spoke well, with just the right touch of controversy, to keep us happy.

And I lost all sense of professionalism and took a picture of the man on my phone. Just like every other person in the room did.

If this is how he intends to carry on, being funny, articulate, interesting and unafraid to say what's on his mind, then the next two years should be a lot of fun.

 

ncameron@thenational.ae