The Austrian coach of UAE club Al Wahda Josef Hickersberger said in January that if he had been in the same position as his opposite number at Al Wasl then he would have been fired before admitting with a smile ... "I am not Diego Maradona." Maradona is different, just as he always was. As a player, he could do things that nobody else could and on the other side of the white line in the desert of the United Arab Emirates, he is doing things that most other coaches could not get away with.
Just over three months since his first season kicked off, he has already: publicly criticized the board, been publicly criticized by a senior player, made eyes at other jobs, been fined by the league for remarks about another coach, kicked a supporter, had kidney stones removed and if that wasn't painful enough, he has taken an ambitious club on a mediocre run of results. Despite all that, he has not only survived in perhaps the most trigger-happy league in the world, he is now being linked with the national team job.
The fact that doubts exist over his abilities as a coach gives him better job protection than his counterparts. You don't hire the Argentine for his coaching abilities so firing him for his limitations in that regard seems a little silly. The main reason Al Wasl hired Maradona is because of who he was as a player, not because of what he can do as a coach. He may not bring titles but he has does guarantee publicity. Despite an underwhelming campaign, Al Wasl has made more headlines at home and overseas in the last three months than when it was winning any of its past seven titles.
After 12 matches of the 22 played this season, the team is in fifth, nine points behind leaders Al Ain. Two successive wins in recent weeks has moved the Dubai club out of the lower-middle reaches of the standings into something that may not exactly be in the realm of desirability but falls just inside the borders of respectability.
That is not usually enough in the UAE. Often, all that stands between a coach and the chop really is just a couple of defeats. The club owners, Sheikhs in the main, want success now. No country in the world hires and fires at such pace. After just four games of the current season, five clubs had parted company with their coach -- this in a league of 12 clubs. There were 13 changes last season. There have been over 50 changes since the league went professional in 2008.
Maradona believes it is that in name only. "There is a lack of professionalism," the Argentine told reporters in October before the season started. "The amount of players who turn up for training is inconsistent; sometimes there are 16 players, sometimes there are 24. I don't mean the players don't show up, but it is due to them having jobs."
Perhaps it is the same for the fans. Apart from those who follow the slickly-run champion Al Jazira -- attendances nationwide average around 3,000. The 4,000 who watched Al Wasl's opening day match against Sharjah was double the number that watched the corresponding fixture last season. Then the Dubai club lost, this time it ended with a 3-0 win thanks to a hat trick from new signing Juan Oliveira. The Uruguayan journeyman wasn't quite the big name fans were promised however. Maradona has also been unhappy with the club's activity in the transfer market. "The management did not make enough reinforcements to the squad, I was promised six new players but only two came. Like we say in Argentina, we would like to bring out all meat from the fridge to serve it, but we were not able to."
The opening win got the season off to a good start and after five games, Al Wasl had collected 10 points but then came stiffer opposition and two points from the next five and the club slipped to seventh.. After the loss to the lowly Dubai, goalkeeper Majed Nasser lost it in front of the television cameras, blaming those who weren't giving enough effort, telling the management to sort it out and threatening to leave. He later apologized but it revealed frustrations in the camp. Matters became worse with elimination from the President's Cup in mid-January.
That was when the trigger would have been pulled in normal circumstances but such things come few and far between with Maradona. A visiting
Other coaches have also felt the sting of the Maradona tongue. Cosmin Olaroiu, a well-respected figure in the region and at the helm of leaders Al Ain, was, according to the Argentine, rude and impolite after celebrating a winning goal unprofessionally. It was also said the players were the reason for the top spot, not the Romanian. Maradona was fined for his comments. Olaroiu replied that his opposite number was someone "who doesn't have a clear mind" and made reference to past drug-taking. This was after Maradona had to apologize for kicking a fan's hand that was intruding on a photo he was posing for.
Al Wasl sometimes gives the impression of wearying of the circus, 24 hours after his kidney stones operation Maradona was in China telling locals that it would be a great place to work, but that is one thing that the Argentine guarantees as a coach. A face-saving way out for the club, should it wish it, could be to see its man take the vacant national team job. It is possible. UAE is out of qualification for the 2014 World Cup already after losing all five games of the third round and wants an international figure.
"Yes, we have thought of Maradona to lead the team," UAE FA president Yousef Al Serkal said earlier this week. "He is one of the names you cannot lose sight of, especially since he is already here." Serkel said a big name is not important but as he is likely to be a candidate to be the next president of the Asian Football Confederation, hiring the Argentine would certainly help his profile, the lack of which outside the region is his weakness.
Maradona, rumored to be paid around $5 million a year, is thought to be interested though it is hard to say why with no meaningful games until the 2015 Asian Cup and a team in transition. But who knows? By the normal rules of the country, which admittedly are not very normal, he should be out of a job but instead he could find himself in its top soccer position. Diego is different.