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Maradona in spotlight as UAE season starts

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DUBAI (Reuters) -- A small corner of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) will grab the attention of the soccer world on Sunday night when Diego Maradona's Al Wasl launch their league campaign.

The 50-year-old Argentine great is coach of the Dubai club who face Sharjah in their opening fixture in the 12-team UAE professional league.

Before a ball has even been kicked Maradona, who signed a two-year contract in May, has injected a real buzz in a region hardly known for its footballing traditions.

His six matches so far -- two in pre-season plus four in the region's equivalent of the League Cup -- have seen Al Wasl score 13 goals and concede 12 including a 5-0 humbling by Dubai Club.

That defeat prompted Al Wasl, without a league title since 2007, to hand Maradona a vote of confidence.

"The season is long and this is just one match," the club said in a statement. "We have full faith in our head coach who is working hard to develop a strong team that will be true contenders for the league title."

Patience is a rare commodity among owners in the UAE with only two of the 12 top-flight coaches lasting the whole campaign last season.

"I'm with Al Wasl and I will complete my contract here until the last day and give my best at all times," said Maradona. "After the 5-0 defeat some people might think otherwise but I don't care what they think."

It has all been a bit of a culture shock for the man who won 91 caps for Argentina, including a World Cup winners' medal in 1986, and coached his country at the 2010 finals where they lost to Germany in the quarter-finals.

Pre-season training in August and September was disrupted by Ramadan, with the majority of players fasting between dawn and dusk.

The league campaign is also starting in temperatures which, even at night, rarely drop below 25 degrees Celsius.

Although the league has been professional for four years, many players still hold outside jobs, a further training disruption.

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Maradona's news conferences have been a spectacle in themselves. He invariably arrives late despite wearing two watches, one showing local time and the other the time in Buenos Aires where his family live.

Questions to him are a mix of English, Arabic and Spanish but he charms and entertains with wonderfully passionate and expressive answers.

Responding to suggestions that fans have been unsettled by the open nature of Al Wasl matches, he said: "If you are scared then don't come and watch. You can stay at home and watch a comedy on DVD. Football is passion and entertainment".

According to media reports the Argentine's two-year contract is worth $3.5 million but the club have strenuously denied he is being paid as much as that.

Maradona has already done wonders for the profile of Al Wasl and UAE soccer.

"There's no doubt that ever since the appointment of Diego Maradona as head coach the name of Al Wasl has exploded on the worldwide radar," club chairman Marwan bin Bayat told Reuters.

"In four months our followers on Twitter grew from 50 to 1,600 and we have received over 30,000 visitors to our website which is a 300 percent increase."

Rival clubs have been left in the shadows including Al Jazira despite the double winners recruiting former Belgian international Franky Vercauteren as coach.

"I don't want to be under the radar, I want to be in front," said Vercauteren. "Maybe we can be a little bit in the shadow but you need to end in the sun and that's where we want to be."

Another former playing rival of Maradona, ex-Italy goalkeeper Walter Zenga, is the coach of Al Nasr.

"Diego's the biggest name in the world," said Zenga. "If you say his name then everyone knows who he is."