LONDON: The debate over whether Diego Maradona is the best player the world has ever seen will be revived by the news of his death at the age of 60 on Wednesday, however, those happy Saudi fans who saw him in action in Jeddah in 1987 will surely to insist that he was the greatest. Even those who do not join the Arab world mourn the loss of Argentina.
Maradona is best known in the world for leading Argentina to victory at the 1986 World Cup when he was at the peak of his form. His performances in Mexico will never be forgotten.
So, seeing him in Jedi a year later wearing an Al-Ahly T-shirt was something special. He joined in helping celebrate the club’s 50th anniversary in an exhibition match against Danish Brondby.
Napoli, where he played every week, was unhappy that their star capital was moving towards Saudi Arabia and feared a possible injury, but this was Maradona and he did what he wanted, on and off the field, with a fee of 100,000 dollars. too good to refuse.
Inspired by the presence of the star, Al-Ahly defeated his European opponents 5-2. Three were made by the South American, and he scored the other two. The first was a wonderful shot over the Danish goalkeeper and the second a leisurely shot. That sent a full house wild with delight. Not only skill but also love for football delighted me.
Maradona scored only once against the Arab opposition, but Moroccan fans will not mind that the maestro broke through their defense in a friendly match against Argentina in 1994. That was his last penultimate goal for his country, and after he failed the drug test at the next World Cup, he never played on the international stage again.
He coached the Argentine team, taking them in the last eight at the 2010 World Cup and punishing a 4-0 defeat by Germany. Less than a year later, however, the then 50-year-old shocked the world of football and delighted those in the UAE and the wider region by taking over Al-Wasl. West Asia has seen better coaches with better records, but there has never been a bigger football name coming in and doing their job.
I remember the buzz around the stadium in Abu Dhabi for his first games in Al Jazeera in September 2011. The media from all over the world, which was trying to talk to the legend, was crowded than usual. A huge number of microphones placed in front of a smiling South American while talking to reporters is rarely seen in Asian football.
In fact, he achieved success even before he started. The club has appeared in headlines around the world.
“From a business perspective, a decision that makes absolute sense is feasible,” said Marwan bin Beiat, the club’s president. “The name Al-Wasl exploded on the world’s radar. The publicity we get can be compared to the biggest clubs in the world. “
On the field, that first game was fun, but it ended 4-3 for the guests, setting the tone for the rest of the season. There were rarely boring moments, but it ended in disappointment. He was fired in July 2012 after a turbulent 14 months in charge of Al-Wasl, who finished the season in eighth place.
Gabriel Calderon, a former Argentine national team player who played with Maradona at the World Cup in 1982 and 1990, and trained in the UAE at the same time as Maradona, said that his compatriot is the best player in the world.
“With him on your team then, you knew anything was possible,” said Calderon, who coached Bani Yas and accompanied Maradona to Al-Wasl, as well as a coach in Saudi Arabia. “As a coach in the United Arab Emirates, he knew it would not be easy, but although he was the center of attention with the media, he simply loved football, he liked to be close to the players and he tried to help them as much as possible. He had many happy memories of his time in the UAE and I know that the fans there also loved him. “
After Al-Wasl, Maradona did not finish with the UAE and took over Fujairah in the second league in 2017, but left the following year after failing to secure promotion.
It will, rightly, be a footnote as the world mourns the passage of the legend, but the Arab world has its own special memories of Diego Maradona, a player who briefly shone like that in Saudi Arabia in 1987.