For many professional athletes, the intensity of competition can sometimes see their chosen sport lose a little of its lustre. The pressure, preparation, dedication and sacrifice required to be at the very top, can transform what began as a childhood dream into the humdrum reality of feeling like a regular job.
As tennis legend Andre Agassi once wrote: “I play tennis for a living even though I hate tennis, hate it with a dark and secret passion and always have.”
Diego Maradona would certainly have reason for falling out of love with football. His career is often cruelly remembered as much for its controversy as it was for its brilliance, while his status as the game’s greatest ensured a degree of scrutiny on his life, both personal and professional, only a handful of people can truly empathise with.
Yet, Maradona, to his very core, remains a fan. His passion undimmed, as anyone taking a midweek trip to the five-a-side pitches in Al Jaddaf or Sports City might find the 1986 World Cup winner strutting his stuff against players half his age. He is, at 56, still most comfortable when a ball is at his feet.
He also retains business interests in the UAE with his recently-opened Cafe Diego at Nation Galleria mall in Abu Dhabi.
Dividing his time between Dubai and Buenos Aires, he was at the Mohammed Bin Zayed Stadium last Tuesday as the UAE beat Iraq 2-0 in a World Cup qualifier and will be at the Hazza Bin Zayed Stadium this Saturday to witness Al Ain’s bid to overturn their 2-1 deficit to Jeonbuk Motors and lift the Asian Champions League trophy.
Despite still feeling resentment at his Al Wasl dismissal in 2012, he remains determined to earn another coaching job in the UAE, as he sat down at his home on The Palm to discuss a number of topics…
How do you rate Al Ain’s chances on Saturday against Jeonbuk?
A Al Ain have a good team, with a good attitude on the field. I watched the first leg and despite the fact that they lost, Al Ain have a great opportunity. They need to keep their concentration and know that even one or two goals may not be enough.
Just like the UAE last week, where they led 1-0, and Iraq didn’t attack, they allowed the UAE onto them. But what happened if Ali Khaseif’s save in the 88th minute had been a goal? Yes, they were leading 1-0 but they lacked the concentration to get the second, maybe thinking 1-0 was enough but it doesn’t grant anything. Only with a three-goal difference you can feel tranquillity.
And what of the UAE, can they still qualify for Russia 2018?
It’s very difficult because the key result was the 1-0 defeat to Australia in Abu Dhabi, when Tim Cahill scored. Australia won with a goal that, in my opinion, was a big mistake.
Okay, Cahill is an experienced player but if am Mohanad Salem, and you come and push me, I push you harder. Salem is one of the best Emirati central defenders but he had to “break” Cahill in that play, and I’m not speaking about violence, but with the kind of strong body he has, he had to send Cahill outside the pitch. Cahill was smarter.
I would say to him: “Next time somebody pushes you on that way, you don’t play anymore with me. Cahill can’t win over you, Cahill has to fly and fall with the supporters, because he is taking you away the chance to go to a World Cup.”
They need to improve the mentality, the lack of concentration, during the game against Iraq was driving me crazy. Iraq didn’t want it because they didn’t know what to do with the ball, they came here with the idea to draw or lose by a small margin but when they saw that one goal was enough for UAE , they saw an open door and they got the courage to test and attack.
But that Australia result has complicated everything, because now they have to face many tough games and they have to win almost all of them: Japan and Saudi Arabia here and Australia away.
Do you think they can?
I’m not scared about Australia, they are mostly long balls and headers. I watched Australia versus Thailand, and Thailand deserved to win that game. They were playing better.
But I’m worried about Saudi. I don’t know why but it seems Saudi have taken the UAE’s pulse. When the Saudi shirt is flying, the UAE shirt remains on the floor…
They have to improve their mentality to balance that situation, but to get that they have to work, they have to say to themselves: “We are playing for our life.”
You clearly still love to talk and think about football…
In football, nobody has the truth, only their thoughts; somebody likes playmakers, somebody likes midfielders, somebody likes goalkeepers… Okay, okay nobody likes goalies [laughing].
I love to watch Al Ahli, Al Jazira, Al Nasr, Al Wahda… except Al Wasl, because they didn’t behave well with me. They are all teams that someday I would like to coach. I heard I was once a candidate for the UAE national team, but I don’t want to create any problems. I would love the chance to work in a team – a young or senior national team. I want to feel useful and don’t “steal” money from anybody.
When I was coming back from UAE v Iraq, I felt like I needed to manage a training session immediately, with fury. I couldn’t sleep, I was thinking the whole night; trainings, projects, planning, and I’m still feeling that.
Do you feel your work at Al Wasl went under-appreciated?
I’m a bit sad because the job we did in Al Wasl was marvellous. We built a good group, we recovered players who were not playing and we gave them special trainings. I want to remember again those nice moments at Al Wasl, when going to play football was like a theme park, because football is about fun.
My departure hurt me a lot because after we made a great sacrifice. I used to come back to my house at 3am. But they didn’t recognise anything. This is what hurts me the most, I did a good job but nobody called me later, surely because I’m not friend of the agents.
During my time at Al Wasl there was coaches who worked in three or four different clubs here – Walter Zenga for example. I appreciate Zenga and he is a very good man but he didn’t get good results and they didn’t give me same opportunities.
As a player you brought so much joy to the football pitch but that is much harder to do as a coach…
It’s very difficult to do the same as player and coach. As a player I had to solve my own problems but as coach I depend on my players and you can only give so many instructions. I say this without shame, but I would love to have myself as a player!
You’ve always been an outspoken critic of FIFA and met Gianni Infantino recently…
I told him what’s happening at the Argentina Football Association AFA and what I think about FIFA, but surely they know because I’ve been saying the same for 30 years!
When I was talking with Infantino, I told him he should be quiet, don’t say quickly, “we are going to have a World Cup with 50 teams or 130 teams”, to attract people, because in that way we are lying to the people.
We can’t kill 30 years in corruption in eight months, then we have to go step by step.
If I receive the permission to work in FIFA, my first decision will be remove all the corrupt people from Argentine football, I can fill a jail with them.
Argentina is selling 10 times more players, compared to 10 years ago, because we don’t have academies, because 10 years old boys now have agents. No! 10-year-old kids should only have a mother and father.
What else would you change?
My first decision would be to limit the number of clubs managed by the same coach to two in a year. There is a “carousel” of agents and coaches. The same coach can move quickly from Barcelona to Real Madrid to Hamburg, China or Japan. There are many jobless coaches but always the same 10 are working. That will be my first measure.
And what about football in Argentina?
I want to recover the passion for Argentine football. And I don’t want to hear anything about a Super League or Super Tournament because we can’t do that, we must to start from the academies. If clubs doesn’t have an academy then they are not allowed to play in first division.
Today we have a 30-clubs tournament because (Julio) Grondona wanted to look good. I don’t have to look good to anybody.
I think the English and German leagues are the best in terms of attendance. England have a competitive league and they have the Championship and I was wondering “Why not to build a strong first division tournament in Argentina and a second division tournament like the Championship to get stronger teams and full stadiums later?”
Do you like the idea of owning your own academy?
I could do it but with kids older than 13. Kids younger than 13 should to stay with their parents. After 13 you can teach them concepts, tactics, trainings, give them experiences, anecdotes…
I never created a Maradona academy because I don’t want to steal money from parents, because in Argentina there are players with just three first-team appearances who already have a “football school”, and this is a big lie. What they can teach to kids?
I had some chances to open one at China, but I can’t properly teach concepts to kids through a translator. If I train kids it will be with a ball, not doing 100 metre sprints. The 100m is for Carl Lewis, Ben Johnson or Usain Bolt, not for football players. When do you see a player running a top speed at 100m? Football is pass and move, and the maximum and average rush is 20m. This is the key of football.
We don’t score launching a javelin, we don’t score running 200m like Usain Bolt, we are not athletes, we are football players.
As my dear friend Socrates said, when somebody asked him why he didn’t run much: “They didn’t hire me to run, they hired to play football and when I have the ball, I play well”, and he closed their mouths because it was the truth.
What did you make of Lionel Messi’s boycott of the media last week?
I was the creator of the “silenzio stampa” (full silence) with Napoli, 30 years ago. I’m not inside the Argentina team and I don’t know what the motivation to take this decision is but if the whole group think it is a right decision, then is perfect for me.
Finally, will Argentina qualify for Russia 2018?
They looked a different team against Colombia (winning 3-0 after losing by the same scoreline to Brazil), and have to achieve point by point – nobody wins anything with history. We will get to the World Cup. Just imagine a tournament without Argentina, it will be very boring!