It was 1986 and the Fifa World Cup was in full swing in Mexico. Argentina was playing England in the quarter-finals, a game that would go down in history for one of the most controversial moments in football. The 25-year-old Diego Maradona jumped and punched the ball past England’s goalkeeper, Peter Shilton, while a stunned Estadio Azteca crowd watched in disbelief as referee Ali bin Nasser failed to blow his whistle for handball.
The “Hand of God” went unpunished, with the Tunisian referee later saying he just didn’t have the heart to spoil Maradona’s jubilant celebration, akin to a petulant toddler running gleefully and guiltily away from a scolding parent with a giant smirk on his face.
Argentina won the game 2-1 – with Maradona also scoring a sublime individual goal, a feat that aptly underlined his unparalleled talent – and went on to lift the trophy.
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Smart and skillful but with a questionable morality on the field, Maradona has always been revered as much as he has been reviled. Now 56, he claims it’s only since his move to the United Arab Emirates in 2011 that he has matured enough to win over his doubters.
“I probably didn’t fully grow up until I was 50,” he says. “Footballers are Peter Pan characters and so it can take us longer to realize what matters in life. Fate brought me to the UAE. Little did I know at the time that this would be my most important move and that I would find a home here for life.”
“Fate brought me to the UAE. Little did I know at the time that this would be my most important move and that I would find a home here for life”
Maradona’s arrival in the UAE caught most by surprise. Nine months before his shock appointment as Al Wasl manager, he had been rubbing shoulders with Lionel Messi as Argentina coach at the 2010 Fifa World Cup in South Africa.
He was dismissed from that high-profile role shortly after La Albiceleste’s crushing 4-0 loss to Germany in the quarter-finals. Despite that defeat, Maradona was promised a new four-year contract yet claims it was clear – long before his dismissal – that senior Fifa personnel wanted him out of a job.
“We lost one game badly and suddenly people I saw as my allies were baying for my blood,” he says. “[Former Argentine Football Association president] Julio Grondona and even [ex-Fifa president] Sepp Blatter didn’t want me in charge or even in football. I don’t think they ever thought I deserved the job in the first place. I was seen as an embarrassment. I was pretty low after leaving Argentina. It was the first time in my football career I had doubts about my talent. But then a job offer in the UAE arrived from nowhere. At this point every other country saw me as a ‘black sheep,’ but the whole of the UAE, not just the Al Wasl supporters, treated me like a hero. This made me feel welcome and gave me great confidence.”
Nonetheless, Maradona lasted just 14 months at Al Wasl. The Cheetahs started the 2011-2012 season as one of the title favorites but could only finish eighth in the Arabian Gulf League, resulting in the club’s entire board resigning.
Maradona also fell out with the fans who demanded instant success and silverware. During a disappointing 2-0 loss to Al Shabab, he was even forced to climb into the stands and confront some of them after he spotted his partner being verbally abused.
“It hasn’t always been easy,” concedes Maradona, who was capped 91 times for Argentina and won two Serie A titles with Napoli. “Every club has passionate fans who want success and I respect that, but you should never involve family. If someone has a problem with me they must tell me to my face. I did my best at Al Wasl, but it wasn’t enough. It took me a while to come to terms with a new language, working via a translator, plus the matches start very late and that takes some getting used to. In hindsight, I should have waited a few more months before going back into management.”
Maradona’s unceremonious departure from Al Wasl looked like being his last role in coaching. Yet he still chose to remain in the UAE, working part-time as an ambassador for the Dubai Sports Council.
“I came here for football reasons, but soon found so much more,” he says. “I love the culture, climate, and, most importantly, the people. I now see myself as a son of this great country because they respect me as a person. One thousand job offers could arrive and I wouldn’t leave now.”
“I now see myself as a son of this great country because they respect me as a person. One thousand job offers could arrive and I wouldn’t leave now”
Job offers weren’t arriving, though, following his Al Wasl departure. Maradona was still viewed as a wonderful character and ambassador for the beautiful game, but far too much of a risk to appoint as a coach.
As a result, five long years passed until last May, when second-tier side Fujairah came calling and Maradona accepted without hesitation. So why take on a new and unfashionable role, 170km from Dubai, in the lower echelons of UAE football?
“All I think about now is Fujairah. I could have taken jobs in Russia, Kazakhstan or back in Argentina, but my only priority now is Fujairah”
“That answer is simple,” maintains Maradona, who played in front of 100 000 fans at Barcelona yet will now manage a club with an average attendance of just 250. “I decided to work with Fujairah because I have missed standing on the touchline and being part of a team. All I think about now is Fujairah. I could have taken jobs in Russia, Kazakhstan, or back in Argentina, but my only priority now is Fujairah. I think I owe something not just to UAE football, but this country as a whole. Arriving here six years ago I really didn’t know what to expect, but I soon learned the value of Emirati culture. Coming to the UAE has turned me into a more mature man and has also made me consider my legacy.”
Fujairah will start the new season as firm favorites for promotion to the Arabian Gulf League and Maradona has wasted no time in recruiting, bringing in Argentine forward Gonzalo Bravo from Deportivo Riestra to bolster his attack.
Fujairah are an ambitious club and have no shortage of money to back Maradona. They also have a history of attracting big-name foreign managers. Admittedly none quite rival their latest signing, but Ivan Hašek was a title winner with Dubai’s Al Ahli and Stefano Cusin took charge of English Championship side Wolverhampton Wanderers last season.
“We are giants in this division so promotion is essential,” admits Maradona. “From there I hope to establish us as force in the Arabian Gulf League. That is our goal. Now if anyone wants to beat Fujairah they must defeat Maradona – and that is an impossible task!”
Maradona is clearly a man with a point to prove in coaching and he’s quite prepared to start from the bottom to do so. In fact, he prefers it that way since the lower down the football pyramid he descends, the less scrutiny he incurs.
“As a player I loved being watched, but as a coach it isn’t always as fun when things aren’t going your way,” he says. “And it’s true, I have made mistakes as a coach with both Argentina and Al Wasl. But I think when you are a top player, the transition into management isn’t so simple, especially when you start at a smaller team. I was the best player in the world at the 1986 World Cup. Things came easy to me and we won that tournament.
The challenge is imparting wisdom learned from those memorable times, but also accepting the players I work with now don’t always have my ability. I now know that developing talent, at whatever level, will create a legacy for me – all the players I work with will have my imprint on them and that keeps my reputation alive. I have realized in the last few years how important this is. You see times change so quickly. There are generations who don’t even remember me as a player. My grandson Benjamin, for instance. He is only eight. Of course he has seen videos of me, but I want to inspire him through my coaching as well.”
Maradona’s wish to forge a new legacy is admirable, but however hard he tries he won’t be able to escape the “Hand of God.” Yet when asked about that infamous moment in football history, his initial response is a little surprising.
“Which one?” he laughs. “You see there were actually two – at the 1990 Fifa World Cup in Italy I used my hand to clear the ball off the line against the Soviet Union. Again, I got away with it. If it happened today I would have probably been sent off for both ‘Hand of Gods!’”
As he bids to redeem himself from a moment – or, as he claims, two moments – of madness, Maradona has become an unlikely champion of video technology, even though he accepts the introduction of it 31 years ago could have cost him a Fifa World Cup winners’ medal.
“When I openly support video technology, I sometimes get called a hypocrite,” he smirks. “All I can say is I accept my goal in 1986 shouldn’t have stood and wouldn’t these days. I can’t reverse the past, nor do I want to. The absence of video technology gave me and Argentina a wonderful moment, but I think the majority of the football world would prefer if it was taken away from me. How can anyone argue video technology is a waste of time? You only have to look at the reaction to my ‘Hand of God’ goal against England to show how outraged everyone is by injustice.
People get annoyed when something that shouldn’t be given is given. Technology brings transparency and quality and stops the cheats. It’s not just my goal in 1986 that wouldn’t have counted, either. Don’t forget England won the Fifa World Cup in 1966 with a shot that didn’t cross the line. There have been lots of incidents where World Cup history would have been altered had technology been used.”
Maradona is clearly prepared to shift with the times and that’s why his move to Fujairah isn’t a step down. It’s a chance to reinvent himself as a modern coach after five years in the football wilderness. He admits he’s probably too old to come out of retirement and ever play for his new club, but has reportedly impressed his new team with his ball skills in training. And he also hasn’t ruled out leading the UAE to World Cup glory one day.
“My loyalty is not just to Fujairah, but the UAE as a whole,” he says. “So if things go well at Fujairah, why can’t I coach the national team one day? Imagine this, a UAE versus Argentina World Cup final in 2030 with Diego Maradona on the touchline. By then Messi will be too old to play so we can probably win the trophy!”