DUBAI // On May 26, 1978, a little more than two weeks after Liverpool captain Emlyn Hughes had hoisted the European Cup for the second time in two years, the Englishman’s all-conquering club played an exhibition match at Dubai to inaugurate Al Maktoum Stadium, the new home of Al Nasr.
Building the 12,000-capacity arena was the idea of Sheikh Mana bin Khalifa, a cousin of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, who had studied in England and returned home with grand plans to develop football in the Emirates.
Five months earlier, when then-Fifa president Joao Havelange came to town to meet the local Football Association, Sheikh Mana had persuaded him to visit the new stadium and see the progress.
“It was still under construction, but because of Sheikh Mana, Havelange and his assistants came to Al Nasr and toured the building,” said Saeed Ali, a journalist who has covered the club since the 1970s. “It’s quite unusual, but the first visitor to Maktoum Stadium was the president of Fifa.”
On the evening Liverpool played, the stadium was resplendent and ready, and a far more fitting welcome had been organised. According to reports, ahead of a 7pm kick off, the Dubai Defence Skydiving Team parachuted onto the field, landing in the centre circle.
Their performance was followed shortly after by a marching band, red and blue camels and several dozen doves of peace.
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” said Dr Mohamed Kassala, a Sudanese midfielder who joined Nasr in 1977.
“I can go back 37 years in my memory, but most people cannot imagine what Dubai was like back then. There were not so many forms of entertainment. It was not like now with a lot of malls and towers and parks. At that time, a stadium was the main place where people gathered and soccer was the only sport loved by all the people.”
Liverpool’s line-up was missing Graeme Souness and Kenny Dalglish, who had been called up by Scotland for the World Cup in Argentina. With England having failed to qualify, the rest of the Liverpool starting 11 was identical to that which beat Club Brugge 1-0 at Wembley Stadium 16 days earlier.
Nasr had travelled to Khartoum to gain extra match practice, yet it proved futile: the English league champions won 5-0 in front of the capacity crowd.
The game was also shown live on local television. Hamdi Al Nahas, a senior editor at the Egyptian daily Al Masa’ and editor-in-chief of Al Kora Wal Malaaeb (Ball and Pitches), suggested the next day that the scoreline was slightly misrepresentative. He wrote that while “it is true the champions of Europe scored five goals, Al Nasr had the opportunity to score many times throughout the game.
“One chance after the next was missed, despite the fact the goal area was empty except for the goalkeeper. Thus was lost the joy of shaking the red nets.”
Ismail Al Baqri, chief of the sports section at Al Ahram newspaper, was less critical of Nasr’s finishing, instead praising the performance of Liverpool and, in particular, Ray Clemence.
“[Liverpool’s] game is simple and fast, embedded in team spirit and without complications, entertaining the audience with technical moves,” Al Baqri wrote.
“Though five goals were scored against Al Nasr, the team fought, sparing no effort. We shall not forget the alertness of the goalkeeper Clemence who stood strong as a dam, giving no chance to the attackers of Al Nasr.”
At the final whistle, the Nasr players thanked their opponents for making the trip, swapped shirts and celebrated with Liverpool as they paraded the European Cup and invited the players for a post-match dinner at the club. Kassala, who would four years later enjoy a testimonial match against Kevin Keegan’s Southampton, traded jerseys with Ray Kennedy.
It remains in a frame in his family home in Sudan.
“It was a great team,” he said, reeling off the players’ names like a phone number. “They were all top class. It was a great occasion for all of us; a great day in our lives.”
* This story first appeared in print and online on June 30, 2015 as part of The National's Summer of Sport series