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May 23, 2011

Maradona faces the UAE heat

Diego Maradona famously slalomed his way through half the England team back in 1986 to score one of the best goals ever. Now he is off to take charge of Al Wasl in UAE, a nation where similar skills of maneuverability and quickness of thought come in handy for any coach and divine assistance is always welcome.

The Argentine may find that skipping past the twin Terries of Fenwick and Butcher will seem like child's play in comparison to what lies in store. At least it would be for the average coach but as both goals scored in that quarter-final a quarter of a century ago showed, the normal rules of football don't really exist when it comes to the man they call Diego.

In some ways, he has already succeeded. Al Wasl want the glamour and excitement that comes with the former Boca Junior. That has been provided over the last few days and announcing his signing for next season even before the current one has finished ensures that anticipation will rise as high as the mercury in Dubai this summer. The man who led the Albiceleste to the last eight of the 2010 World Cup failed to allay doubts that he didn't have what it takes to be a top tactician but that won't matter much as he is not there to build an Al Wasl dynasty. If the club really wanted a coach who could fashion a successful side for the future then Sergio Farias, a competent person in that regard, wouldn't have been fired last month.

For most coaches, a stint in the UAE is a little like Maradona himself: short but worth lots of money (salary details have not been released but reports suggest anything from $5 to $35 million a year). It is not a place to go to further your career, at least not yet, but it is unlikely to do much damage either. Everyone knows the score. All coaches get fired sooner or later and in the UAE, it's sooner. The current English Premier League season has seen four managerial changes, one more than the number of UAE teams that haven't changed after 19 games of the current campaign.

This is not unusual. In the three years since the league went professional, there have been a total of 45 coaches with only nine completing a single season. There is such a focus on results that long-term planning is not really worth bothering with. David O'Leary said upon his appointment at Al Ahli at the start of the season that he needed three years. He didn't get much more than three months.

Farias could empathise. The Brazilian had demonstrated what he could do given time in South Korea. He led Pohang Steelers to the 2007 K-League title and then to the Asian Champions League in 2009. That was followed by an impressive third-place finish at the Club World Cup in Abu Dhabi. Despite Pohang pleas and Japanese interest, he left for Saudi Arabia and then joined Al Wasl in July 2010 only to be fired in March with the club in fourth place.

That has been par for much of the Al Wasl course of late. The 2007 title was the first since 1997. Farias doesn't really expect that to change with the appointment of Maradona, though his opinion is hardly the most objective.

"This is bad business," he said last week. "It would have been better to invest in professionalizing the club for example hiring staff at U20 level. Maradona has great access and support from football's top leaders. But Al Wasl is amateur and Maradona does not have the experience to build a structure like those he succeeded."

He doesn't, but there are others to do such things. Al Wasl will soon welcome Albert Benaiges, the man formerly in charge of the youth set-up at Barcelona to try and do something similar in UAE - and there is a good deal of talent in the country which saw its Under-20 team win the 2008 Asian title and reach the last eight on the global stage a year later.

The fans haven't yet responded to the promising youngsters in the league and Maradona should be prepared for the fact that while big-names are common in the Emirates, big crowds are not - though his very presence could change that, in the short-term at least. Al Ahli, even with Fabio Cannavaro - Maradona isn't the only World Cup winning-captain in Dubai - scrape by on an average of around 3,000, a figure that is fairly close to the average for the league as a whole. In the season about to finish, only Al Jazira can consistently claim healthy numbers.

It is perhaps no coincidence that the Abu Dhabi club, who share the same owner as Manchester City, tend to hang on to their coaches. Alex Braga hung around for an almost unheard of three years before choosing to return to Brazil just last week. The club's success on the pitch this season - which ended with a first league title that was sealed with a 4-0 win over Al Wasl - and sustained efforts to engage the local community have resulted in an average of over 15,000.

"Al Jazira is a good example of something built up over time," CEO Phil Anderton told The National. "It's not chopping and changing. It's not a quick fix and that investment in building a team has paid off over time."

Success in Asia for UAE clubs is a different matter. Since Al Ain won the inaugural Asian Champions League title in 2003, there has been little to write home about. All three representatives fell at the first hurdle in this year's tournament, which wasn't much of an improvement on 2010 when all four finished bottom of their groups and 2009 when three again failed to make it to the second stage and one withdrew to focus on a relegation struggle.

While it would be great for Asian football to see Maradona in the continental tournament, that is for the future. For the moment, fans are already speculating on the foreign superstars that will be attracted by their new coach. Al Wasl is going to be, if it is not already, the most talked-about club in Asia. From his first match to his first poor result to the first criticism and the first controversy to the first success and failure, it will be read about around the world.

It remains to be seen how long he lasts. It could even be the full two years as he is not going to be judged on results, at least not solely. He is Maradona and the normal rules of football don't apply.

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