Memories of Maradona: the day a sporting hero joined Fujairah

The World Cup winner was met with a wave of excitement when he took up a management role in the emirate in 2017

The death of the legendary Diego Maradona has sparked an outpouring of grief throughout the footballing world.

Tears have been shed all over Argentina, where the diminutive playmaker became the biggest of stars by carrying a nation on his shoulders and leading his side to glory in the 1986 World Cup.

His loss has been mourned in Naples, the Italian city still enthralled by the beguiling talents of a man at the height of his powers who inspired an unfancied Napoli to two Serie A titles, vanquishing the might of AC Milan along the way.

Homage is being paid in Barcelona, thanks to the midfield maestro's dazzling displays in the famous footballing cathedral of the Nou Camp.

The death at the age of only 60 of perhaps the greatest footballer of all time will also be particularly poignant for the people of Fujairah.

It was on May 7, 2017 that the maverick Maradona took the next step in a nomadic management career which, in contrast to his stellar playing days, ultimately proved less fruitful.

But the magnetic presence of a global figure prompted huge excitement in the quiet east coast city.

He was no stranger to the UAE, having managed Dubai's Al Wasl in 2011.

The sight of a smiling Maradona proudly holding up a Fujairah FC shirt still astonishes to this day.

Imagine Usain Bolt sprinting for your running club or Michael Jordan shooting hoops at the local basketball court.

Fujairah, an unheralded outfit languishing in the second tier of UAE football, had undoubted genius in their midst.

Supporters and Fujairah residents alike could barely comprehend the opportunity that lay before them.

Khaled Zaki, manager of Millennium Hotel Fujairah, was braced for the eyes of the world to be fixed on the emirate when Maradona was unveiled.

“Bringing a legend like Maradona to the area will definitely boost tourism and shed light on Fujairah,” Mr Zaki told The National at the time.

“Fans from around the GCC will come to see the legend in person, along with national and international media coverage.

“It’s the No 1 most popular sport in the world and he is a living legend, so definitely this will enhance domestic tourism as people will rather stay for more than one day to enjoy Fujairah and see Maradona live.”

Fujairah fans even began to learn Spanish phrases in the hope of exchanging words with their new hero.

“Hola Maradona,” said Abdullah Al Bloushi on hearing of his arrival.

“It’s unbelievable but true and I’m not dreaming – Maradona is coming to Fujairah and we will have the chance to meet him. That’s why I learnt how to say hello in Spanish.

“We decided to learn more Spanish words to cheer for him at the match along with our team. All the world will now know about Fujairah and ­become interested in it and that will bring many tourists and ­investors.”

Diego Maradona shows off some skills at Al Fujairah stadium after being announced as the new head coach of the second division side in 2017. AFP
Diego Maradona shows off some skills at Al Fujairah stadium after being announced as the new head coach of the second division side in 2017. AFP

Another fan was also confident the fan base would expand and people would become more aware of Fujairah.

“We are all excited to see him coaching the team,” said Saif Ali, 37, an Emirati father of three.

“They are very lucky and the area will get more attention.

“It’s a smart decision and everybody will benefit from it on many levels. My kids will get very excited when they know about it.”

Ultimately, Maradona's unlikely stay in Fujairah would be short-lived.

He parted ways with the club the following April after failing to gain automatic promotion to the Arabian Gulf League.

Even though the ending was bittersweet, it remains an unforgettable chapter in Fujairah's history.

The love felt for the hugely gifted player in the UAE was reciprocated by the man himself.

In an interview with Al Ittihad newspaper earlier this year, he described his time in the country as “the most beautiful” of his life.

“I offer my respect and love to all the Highnesses and their families because they extended all the love, appreciation and beautiful feelings," he said.

"This makes me always look at the Emirates and its people with passion and love. I have never forgotten the days I spent with them."

Updated: November 26, 2020 11:44 AM

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