Diego Armando Maradona. File/ AFP
Amir Naqvi, Sports Editor and Melchiades Dias, Staff Reporter
Diego Armando Maradona, one of the greatest footballers of all time, passed away on Wednesday at the age of 60, plunging his sport and his native Argentina into mourning.
One of soccer world’s biggest legends, Maradona died of a heart attack, having undergone brain surgery earlier this month, a member of his entourage revealed.
The Fifa’s joint-player of the century, 1986 World Cup winner and at one time head coach of the Argentine national team at the 2010 World Cup, shared a beautiful relationship with the UAE, particularly with the football-crazy fans in the Emirates.
One of football’s greatest icons spent much of the past decade in the UAE, beginning with a tenure at Al Wasl, where he was signed as their head coach on a lucrative contract from May 2011. However, he could only manage to take Al Wasl to eighth place in the 12-team UAE Pro-League, resulting in him parting ways with the Dubai-based club after a 14-month tenure.
After his stint with Al Wasl, in September 2013, the magician was appointed as Dubai’s sports ambassador, which was extended for another year because of the ‘added value’ he brought to the Emirate both ‘on and off the sports field’.
He once again donned the manager’s mantle when he returned to manage Fujairah, then in the second tier of UAE football, for a year beginning May 2017.
A sorcerer on the pitch who wove his magic in football fans’ hearts, Maradona never tired of expressing his affection for the UAE. As COVID-19 spread its deadly tentacles throughout the world, the footballing icon wished the Emirates’ residents well as they joined in the global fight against the pandemic.
Maradona had been staying at home in Argentina in line with measures taken by their government to limit the spread of the pandemic, visited only by his fitness trainer and personal doctor following a knee surgery.
The Argentine superstar harboured a wish -- that of one day returning to the UAE – describing his stay in the country as “the most beautiful” of his life.
In an interview with the UAE media during the time COVID-19 was threatening to wreak havoc worldwide, Maradona said: “I salute all my Emirati brothers and I urge all athletes not to stop training and praying because we are all facing a great unprecedented challenge in the world.”
“I offer my respect and love to all the Highnesses and Royal families because they extended all the love, appreciation, and beautiful feelings.
“This makes me always look at the Emirates and its people with passion and love. I have never forgotten the days I spent with them.
“In the midst of the global crisis, I have been in self-isolation in my house for some time now, especially after the Argentine president had issued strict regulations in that regard.
“I ask from every citizen living in the UAE to conform to all the regulations issued by their government and stay at home until the pandemic is over.”
As a coach, Maradona always had players’ interests uppermost in his heart. He once said: “I was a player and after my retirement I used to defend players because they have always striven to entertain the audience and make them happy in football.
“I cared about the players’ rights in every place I worked at, and this is what I have achieved at Al Wasl and Fujairah and what I am trying to do with the Gimnasia players in the Argentine League.
Expressing his sadness at the toll COVID-19 had taken on the ‘world’s most beautiful game,’ Maradona said: “I hope football will come back again to all the international stadiums because this is the worst experience we are suffering in our lives now. And I see that each one of the international leagues will choose the perfect time to come back.
“In the end, we have to protect the athletes and the nations. We will see a different world after this crisis is over in many aspects of life.”
The UAE has for long been a destination of choice for some of the planet’s great footballing talent -- whether it came in the form of players or managers. Abedi Pele once wore Al Ain colours. Former world player of the year, George Weah proudly turned out for a while in Al Jazira’s white and black and then World Cup winner Fabio Cannavaro lit the Pro League with his signing by Al Ahli.
However, of all the world’s top players that plied their trade on UAE shores, Maradona was unarguably the most outstanding name to parachute into UAE football. Truly, seven-time UAE champions Al Wasl had completed the greatest coup in the league’s history by signing the legend.
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