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.
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 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.
Maradona has never been shy about letting his opinions known and referees are a common target for accusations of bias.