Figurehead for Change
Dubai: It was once said by the former UAE Football League CEO Carlo Nohra that the one unifying fixture in the daily life of all UAE residents where those of all background can readily converge is not a football stadium, but a shopping mall.
But then in stepped Diego Maradona. A man whose mere silhouette, like that of Che Guevara tattooed on his arm, conjures instant imagery of legend and folklore. An icon who could get people talking across belief, origin and age and into stadiums.
As to whether he's the missing part of the puzzle, in the jigsaw that is professionalising the local league, remains to be seen, but he is so far without question the largest piece that could have ever been pulled out of the box.
Never before has the international media paid so much attention to UAE football and never have local clubs like Al Wasl had supporter groups as far away as Argentina. This worldwide media and audience impact created by Al' Diego's arrival is translating into advertising for the club. This filters into the coffers for betterplayers and hopefully higher standards of play.
That should up the attendance ratings and TV figures and from here the cycle of positive growth continues. But just three matches into the new season not everything will be as visible as all that. Attendances have still been markedly weak past the initial bumper training turn-outs.
Jorge Ferrari, an Argentine living in Dubai, said: "I've yet to attend a match myself, but will definitely do so. Diego's a daily subject of conversation among not just Argentines in the UAE but everyone. It's fantastic that he's here, he's having a huge impact on the local game and his results are being monitored globally."
So large is his input on the local game after just two months, that already some fear the fallout of his departure. Tim March at Sharjah Football Club said: "Al Jazira gave away a Ferrari at the last game of the season and got record crowds, but the first game of this season against Al Wasl there was no Ferrari and not much of a turnout. It's the same with Maradona. He's having a very positive affect and has raised the profile of the game here enormously. But there needs to be something beyond that."
"Personalities come and go but it's the solidarity of your base that attracts fans for life. It's about wider connectivity with your community, emotion and inclusivity."
Watching him walk through Karama, put a smile on the face of children with learning disabilities at the Al Noor Children's Centre and tell reporters he will give everyone their 15 minutes of fame, shows Maradona understands the human link and is working on cementing emotive contact between club and fan as his lasting UAE legacy.
He may not win the league with Al Wasl, but that might not matter, as what Maradona and the club are working on is arguably bigger than that it's a blueprint for professionalism. Bottom to top there have been improvements at the club, from academy to first team, in attracting advertisers to ground refurbishment, website overhauls to merchandising and community outreach schemes.
Maradona may be a figurehead to such change, but Al Wasl is far from an empty vessel. Rather he is the touch paper to have set this spark of greater conscience burning. If we're all only truly united in what we consume, Maradona is here to unite us in what we feel, beyond that football agent Romeu Castro, believes more can be done.
"In 2010, the UAE's population was estimated at 4,975,593 people, of which less than 20 per cent were Emiratis. So 80 per cent of the local population doesn't have any representation in the local football league."
"Countries that received a massive number of expatriates in the past, like Brazil, always allowed these communities to be represented at clubs. The Spanish community established the roots for Corinthians, the British Sao Paulo and the Italian Palmeiras and Cruzeiro."
While the coach and four players can be foreign, most predominantly in this case South American (50 per cent), there's arguably not enough representation among the most prevalent expatriate groups here which are South Asian. While every club could have had at least one Asian-born talent since rule changes this summer, most opted for experienced Australians and Iranians over promising young Indians or Filipinos both burgeoning untapped talent pools, whose players would yield results on and off the field here.
A global name like Maradona has helped, but the global route is one to pursue even further if this project is to be more unifying than the mall.
Gulf News takes a look back at the decisive moments of Maradona's Al Wasl tenure so far from first wins and losses to public visits and photo calls. The human aspect could be what attracts fans to clubs for years after his reign.
Maradona is announced as Al Wasl's new coach after a surprise visit
Maradona is officially unveiled to the press for the first time since appointment
Karama is at a standstill as Maradona walks through the district for a jewellery store opening
The first session of pre-season training kicks off with football's greatest in control
Maradona's three foreign signings are unveiled; Mariano Donda, Edson Puch and Juan Manuel Olivera
Maradona's first game in charge, a friendly against Ittihad Kalba ends in 3-1 victory
Maradona's first competitive match ends badly, 4-3 in favour of Al Jazira thanks to an injury-time goal being conceded
The legendary No. 10 takes time out with children at the opening of the Al Noor Centre for Children with Special Needs
Dibba Fujairah defeat Al Wasl 2-1 in a second pre-season friendly in Maradona's first loss with the club
Maradona is deemed competent behind a wheel and is presented with his UAE driving licence
A first competitive win is celebrated in style with 3-0 victory over Emirates Club