The world at large has seen very little of Diego Maradona since he was pictured skipping along the touchline in nervous excitement while managing Argentina at the World Cup finals in South Africa last year.
After almost a year kicking his heels back in Buenos Aires, Maradona is preparing to go to work again, this time as team manager of Al Wasl in the United Arab Emirates.
Maradona, inspiration and captain of Argentina when they won the World Cup in Mexico in 1986, can hardly wait for the final paperwork to be sorted out so he can start discovering a region of the world fast gaining high visibility in world sport.
Neighbouring Qatar’s success in securing host rights to the 2022 World Cup has put the Gulf States on the international football map in a dramatic manner. The presence of Maradona, still one of the game’s most magnetic personalities whatever his controversial past, is the latest exciting development.
“This is a fantastic chance for me,” says the 50-year-old former world player of the year, who is thrilled to have the opportunity to immerse himself back in the game in a part of the world that is working hard to create an international reputation.
Maradona continues: “Everyone knows the potential that is out there. I think I can help. I think there is a role for me. I have signed a pre-contract to stay for two years and I really am looking forward to a marvellous experience. A new challenge in somewhere new.”
Maradona quit his role as manager of Argentina’s national team after they were beaten 4-0 by Germany in the quarter-finals of the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa last July. As with every facet of Maradona’s life and career, there was a complication.
Julio Grondona, President of the Argentinian federation, told Maradona after the delegation’s sad return to Buenos Aires that his job was safe. But there was one condition: all Maradona’s hand-picked coaching assistants had to go. That, for Maradona, turned the issue from a technical debate into a point of principle. He quit on the spot.
Over the past six months Maradona had been linked with high-profile coaching vacancies at San Lorenzo and former World and South American club champions Boca Juniors, one of the clubs where he made his name as a player in the late 1970s.
He will not be the first high-profile arrival in a new wave of football promotion. Fabio Cannavaro, Italy’s 2006 World Cup-winning captain, was persuaded to head for the Gulf after a remarkable club career with Juventus and Real Madrid, and until recently played for Al Ahli Dubai.
Gulf money has been moving in the other direction, too. England’s Manchester City are considered the richest club in the world after having been being bought last year by the United Group of Abu Dhabi, while the Royal Emirates Group of Dubai has bought the Spanish club Getafe and the Qatar Foundation has signed a long-term sponsorship contract with Spanish giants Barcelona.
Maradona steps into a vacancy created by the departure of Brazilian Sergio Farías in March. Language may be a problem since Maradona’s command of English is extremely limited, but he will have the assistance of a team of translators provided by the club and the bonus of a Spanish-speaker in the squad in former Bilbao midfielder Fran Yeste.
The league is now in its third year and sponsorship income and attendances have been rising steadily. That trend should be maintained by the arrival of Maradona, which is by far the most impressive statement of intent by any of the local clubs so far.
“I didn’t need anyone to advise me what decision to make,” said Maradona at the time of the signing. “Now the next step for me is to talk to Héctor Enrique and Alejandro Mancuso, who were working with me at the World Cup [as assistants], and make whatever arrangements are necessary.”
Al Wasl Chairman Marwan bin Bayat is under no illusions about Maradona who has had a chequered record down the years. Details of the contract had yet to be revealed at press time, but Bin Bayat has conceded that “the value of the contract is exactly what one would expect for a man of such a reputation and achievement.”
On the one hand ‘El Pibe de Oro’ – the Golden Boy – lived to the full his glory days as a player with Argentina, Boca, Barcelona and Italy’s Napoli; on the other hand he scored the notorious ‘Hand of God’ goal against England at the 1986 World Cup and struggled for years before finally winning a long, life-threatening battle with drug addiction and obesity.
But as great a player as he was, Maradona has yet to achieve as a manager. Over-expectation complicated several short stints with modest clubs in Argentina, but he turned a positive corner by guiding his national team to the quarter-finals of the World Cup.
While Maradona can be good for Al Wasl, it’s also true that Al Wasl can be good for Maradona.