EXCLUSIVE: In the lair of Diego! Maradona speaks to Martin Samuel at his new home in Dubai
It is dusk, and at the Masjid mosque in the grounds of Al Wasl Sports Club in Dubai, the sound of the azan, the Islamic call to prayer, floats out, summoning the faithful as it has for centuries.
In the distance, illuminated by the fading sun, is Burj Khalifa, a breathtaking silver-shrouded skyscraper, the world's tallest building and symbol of the region's modernity and wealth.
Judith Chalmers would call it a place of contrasts and, on a scrubby pitch, surrounded by low rise administration buildings and a tiny viewing stand, a human contrast marches. He struts, general-like, chest puffed out, barking instructions in Spanish.
All hail: It is eight months since the UAE's Al-Wasl took on Diego Maradona
He carries a football beneath one arm
and never runs, merely strides around the centre circle, followed by an
aide, who repeats his orders in a foreign tongue, mimicking the
inflection and drama.
The little general's name is Diego Maradona, he was once the greatest footballer in the world, and now the desert is his home.
It is just over eight months since
Maradona accepted a contract to coach Al Wasl, the biggest club in the
United Arab Emirates. His salary is estimated to be more than 3million
annually, and there is a private jet at his disposal.
Al Wasl Sports Club is owned by Sheik
Ahmed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, a member of Dubai's ruling family,
although responsibility for the football club is in the hands of Sports
Club vice-president Marwan Bin Bayat, general manager to the private
office of a member of the Maktoum family.
On match days, when they can be moved
to attend, this governing class sit in the traditional Arab garment
known as a thawb consuming light snacks and refreshments while, before
them, the little general loses his wits, noisily and with great
showmanship, on the touchline.
'It is not just a match,' says Tariq
Al Sharibi, Al Wasl's overworked communications officer, 'it is a show.
The Maradona Show.'
Perfect 10: Results haven't matched expectation since the Argentine's arrival… but entertainment is certainly not been in short supply
Unfortunately it is a show being
played out to sparse audiences. A crowd of several thousand is
considered good here and Al Wasl have not exactly been thriving since
Named the Club of the Century in the
UAE at the turn of the millennium, Al Wasl have won seven titles and
never finished lower than eighth in the league. At the halfway stage
this season, Maradona had them sixth. He has fallen out with league
officials, referees and his relationship with Bin Bayat appears
'Pele's comments are down to old age affecting his mind. You can’t blame him, he hasn’t done anything for 20 years'
'I accept the chairman's ambitions,
but it is going to be difficult,' Maradona said before Monday's 2-1
victory against Sharjah. 'I know he always wants the best results, and
so do I, but we are working hard to achieve more. There is a lot to be
done before we can catch up to the leading teams.'
So, in the absence of a great league,
a great crowd or great players, Maradona creates his own entertainment.
People come to watch him and he rarely disappoints. He behaves during
matches like a man who knows a lens is permanently trained on him, as it
is. Silent movies did not contain as much frantic mugging for the
In the match against local rivals Al
Ahli, dressed in three-quarter-length shorts and what appeared to be,
from a distance, deck shoes, he stood, legs apart, arms folded, rocking
back and forth on his heels, until a controversy caught his eye. At
that moment he would explode like a Mack Sennett comedy villain, all
rolling eyes and grand gestures.
He mimed a diving action to express
displeasure at a soft free-kick, he pushed an injured player back on to
the field, he faked hearty laughter in mockery of a decision and when
his star turn, the Iran international Mohammad Reza Khalatbari, was
fouled, he dragged him over to the fourth official and rolled his sock
down to show the wound.
Indeed, this dialogue with the
long-suffering pitchside assistant was so all-consuming that Maradona
must have to watch a replay of the match to know what occurred. He
certainly missed the winning goal against Al Ahli, engaged in another
And then, when the final whistle
blew, Maradona celebrated as he managed: like a lunatic, like a man that
had just played the biggest match of his life, rather than one giving
new meaning to mid-table mediocrity (the teams were sixth and seventh in
a 12-team league of poor standard going into the game).
He raged to the heavens, he raged to
the home crowd. Hobbling slightly, he ran to the handful of away
supporters and raged with them, too. He spotted some friendly faces in
the stand, family members and the usual Maradona entourage, and screamed
in Spanish, unintelligibly.
He kissed the pitch, he really did.He
dropped to his knees and kissed the turf at the Al-Rashid Stadium, next
to the Lulu Hypermarket, where the Al Ahli owners are so fabulously
out of touch they still think it is impressive to display photographs of
their meetings with FIFA notaries Sepp Blatter and Jack Warner.
So when I finally get to talk with
Maradona some days later, I half know the answer to my question about
his motivating force. It remains bronca. An emotion described by Marcela
Mora Y Araujo, translator of his autobiography El Diego, as a mixture
of 'anger, fury, hatred, resentment and bitter discontent'.
It drove him throughout his playing
career, and drives him now. What we see on the touchline is a man in the
grip of an uncontrollable blind rage. About nothing.
Football family: Maradona has enjoyed meetings with those who are legends in their own right, including Robin van Persie (above) and Roberto Carlos (below)
'Even now as a manager, when I suffer
a loss it still feels like a first loss, the first I suffered as a
player,' he told me. 'And when I win, it is like my first win, too. This
is me, this is my personality, it is who I am and will always be.
'I tell my wife, “You know, sometimes
I will not be able to calm down”. This anger will stay. It is deep
within me. The passion I have will continue until my last breath.
'That is why it doesn't matter to me
whether there are 100,000 fans watching me at San Paolo in Napoli, or
just 2,000 fans here. For me, it is not about how many fans there are;
it is about the love of the game. I will always have it, no matter where
'Football is the best thing there is… full of joy and excitement. Players should not feel stress'
At the match with Al Ahli, the Al
Wasl supporters — the Ultra Golds, making them sound like a packet of
cigarettes, '20 Ultra Golds, please' — pinned a banner in Arabic to the
fence behind the goal.
'Every day there is a match,' it
read, 'every day there is a war'. It could have been created
specifically for Diego. To him, a match — any match — is conflict. He
sees no difference between a mid-table skirmish in Dubai and his two
World Cup finals.
'There is no secret here,' he
insisted. 'I will give my all, as I always have. This way I prove to the
people who hired me, and those who support me, how much it means. I
have a responsibility to my players to give them my 35 years of
experience. This I try to do every day.
'The unconventional and uninhibited
way of living was a part of my life. I won't be like that now. This is
why I know what kind of players are good and bad.
'I will develop
the good things I have done and avoid repeating the bad. That is where
my coaching skill comes from. I don't learn things from a book, but from
experience. I hope to bring it to my players to help them grow up.
'It's a beautiful game, the best
thing there is, and that is why I say there is no pressure on my team,
no pressure on my players, just because I am here.
'Football is a
game that is full of excitement and joy and players should not feel
stress. The only people who should be stressed are employees working
long hours behind a desk. Football is a special environment, and players
should be able to perform well in this environment every time.
'The results we have had are not about pressure; they are about the players we have here, and their skills.'
Legend: Maradona's single-handled triumph at Mexico '86 remains one of the finest achievements in the history of the game
… but let's not forget the helping hand he had on route to the final
And there is the heart of the matter.
For, however Maradona wishes to ignore the limitations of the Etisalat
Pro League, there is clearly a yawning gap between the football smarts
of the coach, and the information his players are capable of absorbing.
Maradona seems wasted here; not least
because his players need a man genuinely capable of instructing them,
rather than one waging a 90-minute assault on the eardrums of the fourth
official. If Maradona told his players as much about how to play the
game as he told the referee's assistant about how to run it, Al Wasl
might not be falling below expectations.
There is good money to be earned in
the UAE — David O'Leary is a former manager of Al Ahli, and his
assistant, Roy Aitken, stayed on — but not a great deal of job
satisfaction for a serious coach.
The clubs were originally the
playthings of the ruling class, who did not care who turned up to watch
as long as their friends had entertainment at the weekend.
'It is not just a match,' says Tariq Al Sharibi, Al Wasl's overworked communications officer, 'it is a show. The Maradona Show.'
The establishment of the league in
its current format in 2008 marked a change in approach, and the desire
to produce a competition of true substance and commercial worth. Al
Wasl Football Company set a target of roughly 175,000 in gate money
this year, as a result of Maradona's arrival, although inconsistent
results put the current figure at closer to 100,000.
The dichotomy remains, however. Al
Wasl train in the evening for a number of reasons — the heat and the
fact Maradona is not exactly a morning person being two — but the main
one is that some of the players are not fully professional. They have
day jobs, a fact that shocked their coach and would deter many transfer
targets from Europe and South America.
Instead, the big draw is Maradona.
Roberto Carlos was a visitor the night I attended training — he was in
Dubai for pre-season preparations with his Russian club Anzhi
Makhachkala — and Robin van Persie had passed through the previous week.
'He was on holiday here for a few
days and he just turned up,' explained Tariq. 'He said Maradona was his
hero as a boy and he wanted to meet him and have his photograph taken,
he was just like a kid. He said he used to have his picture on his
walls. The coach was delighted to see him.'
It is these diversions that feed
Maradona's ego, telling him he remains an important figure in
football's world, despite this exile to the backwaters. At his press
conference before the match with Sharjah, he came most alive when asked
to comment on a disparaging remark his nemesis Pele had made about
'I think Pele's comments are down to
old age affecting his mind,' Maradona began. 'You can't blame the guy.
He hasn't done anything for 20 years, not even go to the supermarket,
so then suddenly a journalist gives him a chance to speak, and he thinks
he has to create stories.'
The rant was in Spanish, but the
emotion was universal and now there was laughter in the room, even
before the interminable translations into Emirati and English.
High regard: Maradona's eccentricities are shown in the way he greeted a seven-foot statue of him that was presented at Boca Juniors' museum
Sensing appreciation, Maradona began miming an idiot puppet, straight back, head turning left and right.
'Usually the only time you see him is
at awards ceremonies,' he continued, 'next to the president of FIFA,
looking pretty much like a doll moved by remote control.' As the
laughter subsided, the sneer returned. 'His comments do not surprise
me,' Maradona concluded.
'If the Chinese clubs had contacted me first, I would have liked to coach here'
It was a relatively subdued
performance — the last time I saw him, after Argentina had qualified for
the 2010 World Cup, by winning in Uruguay, he opened by inviting his
critics in the media to commit a lewd act — and he only threatened
assault on one occasion.
This was provoked by a Brazilian
teenager called Alex Perez, who had recently left Al Wasl for Santa
Cruz, a fourth division club back home, and had accused Maradona of
orchestrating a clear-out of Brazilian staff.
'I'm very surprised, I don't know
what to say,' Maradona replied. 'I've never met Alex Perez, I was just
told he wanted to leave. I don't have the liberty of firing anyone at
this club; that is the job of the management of Al Wasl.
'Also, I have a special fitness
trainer who is Brazilian. I chose to promote him from the Under 19 team.
I try to get people jobs, not make them unemployed.' And then the
bronca returned. 'If I ever see this Perez I'll punch him in the face.'
All of this is translated quite
happily for distribution around the globe but what those who at the top
of the hierarchy make of it is unknown.
One for the cameras: Everythying, right down to the way Maradona poses, appears prepared
The Sheiks are royalty, remember, and
regally demure in their actions. Obviously, there are regional
differences but one imagines a senior employee of the Queen's racing
stable who started offering dissenters outside at Royal Ascot would not
last too long in the job: certainly if he was training a lot of losers.
An interview with Bin Bayat, in Abu
Dhabi's The National newspaper, suggested frustration with Maradona's
criticism of budget constraints — the chairman claimed Maradona rejected
the chance to sign Senegal striker Ibrahima Toure, who is now likely
to move to Monaco — and disquiet about his frequent attacks on referees.
'We have talked to Maradona about
this,' Bin Bayat said. 'As far as refereeing is concerned, we need to
consider one very important point: they all have their day jobs and
other obligations, so we cannot blame them. They are only humans and it
is tough. Maradona was surprised that some of the players are employees
and students. It is the same when it comes to referees.'
There will be a parting of the ways,
and quite possibly sooner rather than later, unless results improve. Al
Wasl have already got what they wanted from the arrangement, gates up
100 per cent, a marketing profit of 1.74m so far this season, and an
increased global profile.
Al Wasl's coach was juggling tennis
balls with Novak Djokovic two weeks ago, and that never seemed to happen
when predecessor Sergio Farias was at the club.
Van Persie was
given invitations to watch England and Pakistan's cricketers train
during his time in Dubai, an ICC official explained forlornly. He didn't
turn up. He went to see Maradona instead.
Holding court: In press conferences he continues to drop soundbite after soundbite to the watching crowd
Considering who is writing the
cheques, it can be presumed they have cleared, so perhaps Maradona is
already eyeing his next cash-rich employment market. On a visit to China
last week — two days after an operation to remove kidney stones, he
certainly packs it in — Maradona expressed an interest at working
'If the Chinese clubs had contacted me first, I would have liked to coach here,' he told a charity gathering in Shanghai.
Maybe one season in Dubai would suit
both parties now. The stumbling block is the fans. Small in number but
besotted. There may not be as many as the management hoped but El Diego
is the biggest thing in the desert since the spire was placed on Burj
Khalifa and he is not short of disciples, for all Al Wasl's
'He is the first into work and the
last to leave,' gushed Tariq. 'The players are showered and gone, he is
still here. He gets dinner invitations, they want him to speak
everywhere but he turns them all down. Even when his mother died, he
left for four days only. Back to Argentina for the funeral, then back
As we watch training, a boisterous
local in a pale yellow club-colour thawb stands up and, with both hands
in the air, shouts his devotion across the training field.
Clearly, the only word known to the
object of his affection is 'Maradona', but he waves his appreciation
nonetheless. 'Habibi,' the man shouts. This we understand. My beloved.
For how much longer, who can say