Maradona a year on: friends and former players from UAE recall day Argentine great died

Mohamed El Naggar first became close to the Argentine legend when he agreed to manage Al Wasl

Mohamed El Naggar-DXB

Mohamed El Naggar pictured at the Argentina Football Academy in Al Qusais, Dubai for a profile piece on his relationship with the late Deigo Maradona during  the Argentine’s time in Dubai on April 20st, 2021. 
Antonie Robertson / The National.
Reporter: John McAuley for Sport

Mohamed El Naggar’s voice trails off as he recounts the moment, one year ago today, that he received the news he had been dreading.

“One week before there were rumours here in the newspapers and on social media that Diego was dead,” the Egyptian says. “Then people close to Diego called me and told me it was rumours. But I felt something strange.

“Then, when I received calls a week later, I hoped a lot for it to be rumours again. I lost control to search in Google for the real news. I couldn’t write Diego’s name. At that time, I received calls from Argentina as well. And I couldn’t, I couldn’t…”

El Naggar breaks away, running his hand up his opposite arm to convey the goosebumps. More than six months had passed since news spread around the world that Diego Maradona, one of the most recognisable figures in sport and arguably the greatest footballer of all time, had died in his Buenos Aires home, aged 60, from a heart attack.

El Naggar had grown up idolising Maradona and then grew close to the Argentine World Cup winner through an unlikely relationship that began as his translator in Dubai. It was May 2011; Maradona, seemingly out of nowhere, had agreed to manage UAE league side Al Wasl.

At the time, El Naggar worked as a trade adviser for the Argentine embassy in Abu Dhabi. Initially reluctant to accept the role thrust upon him – “he is a legend; it was too big a profile for me” - he was soon one of Maradona’s inner circle during his seven-year stay in the Emirates.

El Naggar would travel the world with Maradona, attending with him various events and functions. Once, he shared an audience with Maradona and the Pope in the Vatican.

Eventually, El Naggar was employed as Maradona’s translator at Fujairah, part of his backroom staff as the former Boca Juniors, Barcelona and Napoli star attempted to guide the east coast club back into the top flight of UAE football in the 2017/18 season.

“The best Diego,” El Naggar says, the smile returning. “Because Diego among the players is the real Diego. I like this part of Diego. Because I saw him as a kind person with the players, with all the people working at club.”

Mariano Donda knew this Maradona, too. The Argentine midfielder was hand-picked in 2011 by the incoming Wasl manager to join in his new adventure in Dubai.

Donda, then 29, had just enjoyed the best campaign of his professional career with Godoy Cruz and had an attractive offer from giants River Plate. But when the shock telephone call came from Maradona himself, the most important decision in his life to that point was made.

To his credit, Donda repaid that faith: he was the standout player in that single Maradona season in Dubai, recognised as the manager’s leader on the pitch. Donda remained at Wasl for two years after Maradona departed – the latter’s reign ended in July 2012, 14 months into his two-year contract – and had returned to the Argentine capital long before November 26 last year. He remembers the day clearly.

“I had not seen Maradona looking well in recent weeks,” Donda says. “Many problems between the family and him, a huge deterioration in his health. His final weeks of life felt the trigger for his death.

“I followed the news live on the day of his death, as it was rumoured that he was in poor health. His last public image revealed his poor ability to speak, his lack of mobility and his general weariness.

“His death gave me great sadness. That day I cried like a baby when they have a sweet taken from them. People here went three, four days without talking, without believing Maradona is not here with us.

“I was very anguished for three days, very sad, because he had died in a very unfair way. He got tired of being Maradona, the father of his parents [Maradona’s fame from a young age allowed him to support his family financially], the best friend of his friends, and he went to heaven to continue being Diego.

“At home, I felt the last immortal person had died. That, from that day on, we were all mortals.”

Donda keeps hold of those days together in Dubai, the professional and personal development made possible by Maradona. He has made a better life for himself and his brothers and his extended family back in Argentina, because of that phone call that arrived, without warning, from a legend in his homeland a decade ago.

“I was blessed,” Donda says. “Today I remember Maradona with great respect, feeling somewhere in my heart that at some point he will appear.”

Jehad Muntasser shares the sentiment that he was fortunate to have been connected to Maradona. Originally from Libya, the midfielder spent his formative football years in Italy, principally as part of the Atalanta youth team.

Ultimately moving to Dubai, Muntasser became friends with Maradona in the emirate thanks in large part to their similar command of Italian – “I could get his jokes”. Later, they worked together on television.

In Dubai, Muntasser organised recreational football matches for Maradona, often ordered to play in the same team so the odds were stacked in their favour. He recalls the time famous teammate left the UAE, in 2018 to manage in Mexico, when a close companion confided that he thought Maradona’s life could swiftly spiral out of control. The concern was that UAE had afforded him a quieter and healthier existence; elsewhere he would be exposed to too many distractions.

Muntasser regrets how that appeared to ring true, but says still: “I feel very blessed to have known Diego. Lucky. Very lucky. Not because I got to spend time with a legend. But at least I got to know the person.

Maradona in the UAE

“I can say I got to know Diego Armando Maradona. And that’s what I appreciate the most. For sure, today I wish I spent more time with him, because now he’s passed away. None of us - me and my friends who played together with him - we all realise how blessed we were, definitely.

“And it will never happen again. It won’t be the same. Even if I played tomorrow with [Lionel] Messi and we become good friends, it would not be the same as Maradona. Never.”

Messi’s image sits alongside his feted compatriot’s all around the Argentina Football Institute, the academy El Naggar has helped set up in Dubai.

He says he often talked with Maradona about opening football schools in his name, that the boy from the barrios always attached great importance in giving back to younger generations. Academies represented an obvious vehicle for that.

“Now I am very proud to be part of the new project to teach the methodology of Diego and keep Diego still, in eternity," El Naggar says. "Dubai is the first destination where we opened this institute. When I see his pictures everywhere, I feel that Diego is behind us.”

Updated: November 26th 2021, 12:24 PM