When Diego Maradona arrived in Dubai, he was off the grid. He had just had a bad time with the Argentina national team at the 2010 World Cup and he was off the radar.
Then he arrived at Al Wasl and you quickly realise he never disappeared from people’s hearts.
Suddenly, the entire world wanted to know what he was up to in Dubai. It was a crazy time, a surreal period that I count myself lucky to have been there for.
We had started working on Al Wasl’s PR a month before, just basic stuff. Then I got a text message – an SMS because WhatsApp wasn’t introduced here in the UAE yet – saying: “Dear Tariq. Please prepare yourself, because you will be announcing the appointment of Diego Maradona as our coach.”
You just don’t get messages like that. Ever. No meeting to discuss a plan for it. Just a casual text message. I replied to say: “Let’s be serious. What is the actual announcement?”
I was told Maradona was coming to look at the ground, and that eventually he would be appointed. I could not believe it. I had to keep it hushed, but people started making news about it, so we had to make the announcement sooner.
Suddenly, I was preparing to manage the biggest press conference I’d ever even been to in my life. That was how it started.
Then it somehow just happened that I became associated with every one of his press conferences, translating. It was not planned at all.
Fifteen minutes before the first pre-match press conference, I told the club that a lot of RSVPs had come from English press, so we needed a translator. They said: “Tariq, please, you do the translation into English.”
I said OK. It was quite an overwhelming experience. I had never done something like that before. I had Diego on my left. I was looking out at a minimum of 12 TV cameras, jam-packed next to each other in a small room.
People were all over each other, sat on the floor, and there had never been so many microphones at Al Wasl.
The Spanish to Arabic translator started to talk and I didn’t realise how much Diego spoke. I didn’t even have a pen and paper in front of me. I was trying to keep track of what he was saying in my mind. I started speaking and luckily the journalists were very happy and appreciative. Diego was happy, too, then after that, we started perfecting it.
I started to sit with Diego before and after each match, giving him the heads up of what to expect, updates on things he might be asked. But he never really cared. He just said: “Let them ask what they want.”
Sometimes he would say: “Tariq, at the end of today, ask me if I have anything to add. Remember that.”
He would want to get something across and he would worry that the media would not ask him about it, as it was nothing to do with Al Wasl v Al Wahda, for example.
I did that one day and he pretended he wasn’t prepared. Then he said: “Yes, there is something I do want to add.”
It was about Pele. I was always intrigued when he spoke about Pele. I was always evaluating whether they would take jabs at each other because they genuinely dislike each other, because each one thinks they are the greatest.
Or do they have this cunning plan between them because they thought, with [Lionel] Messi, [Cristiano] Ronaldo and Neymar around, people might forget about them, and the best way to stay in the limelight was to continue like this?
It was very funny. You would see pictures of them hugging each other, then the next day they were taking jabs at each other. This time, he wanted to say something.
He said: “There’s this guy, I don’t know if you know him, his name is Pele. He has come out saying Neymar is better than Messi.
“Now, listen. I have no doubt that Neymar is a phenomenal footballer. But please, let’s not compare anyone to Messi. There is no debate there.
“The reason this is happening is because Pele takes pills. He has a night pill and a morning pill. Sometimes he mixes them up.”
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The journalists wrote this up and people started going crazy. I had to translate all that. He was speaking in Spanish and I didn’t know what he was saying until the Arabic guy had translated.
As he was translating, I was thinking in my head: “Oh my gosh. I’m going to have to say all this stuff about Pele now!”
There was always an entertaining moment with him. I did have to filter what he said a couple of times, but only a couple.
For someone with his spikiness and his charisma, I was worried at the beginning. But, in a year-and-a-half, he did not do anything that was completely wild, or unmanageable.
Yes, he would talk about world politics, Argentina, Messi, Pele, the Champions League, a million things.
But he loved it here. He loved Dubai, he loved the club, he loved the fans, he loved the journalists, and even became friends with a number of them.
The process of translating from Spanish to Arabic to English was time consuming, and at one press conference I was talking, and he pretended to fall asleep.
He was snoring, and I could hear him. What was I supposed to do? It was him who had spoken for five minutes. They used the picture of him asleep in Al Ittihad newspaper.
He played the role, and did not go out of character. When I was finished I had to nudge him, and say: “Diego?” He woke up and said in Spanish: “Are you done?”
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Another time I had to set up a meeting between Peter Reid, who was working as a TV pundit in Abu Dhabi, and Diego.
Peter, who was the England player who chased after Diego from the halfway line for the famous goal in 1986, wanted to arrange it.
He said: “Tariq, I want you to know the reason I want to meet Diego. It is because I want to see him from the front. I’ve only ever seen him from the back.”
I ran it by Diego, and he said he was most welcome. They met, they hugged, then they held each other’s hands. Peter said: “Oh, this hand!”
Diego said, in English: “I’m sorry! I’m so sorry!”
Then, unconsciously, Peter kissed his hand. I don’t know why he did that – perhaps because Diego was saying he was sorry and giving him puppy dog eyes.
Abu Dhabi TV caught it, showed it on the TV, and published it on YouTube. You should have seen the backlash of the English public. I felt so sorry for Peter. He was a very nice guy.
It was like that all the time. People just wanted to meet him. Roberto Carlos came to the club. Robin van Persie came with his family, asking if he would be able to meet Diego.
That was him. He was like no other person that I have met, ever.
Tariq Al-Sharabi managed Al Wasl Football Club’s PR and communication and was Diego Maradona’s English-language translator during his spell as manager. He is the managing director of Cicero and Bernay PR.