When Pele played Dubai: February 23, 1973, a day the UAE ‘will never forget’

DUBAI // In 1973, the only thing high in the Dubai sky was the sun.

The World Trade Centre would not open for another five years, and the international airport was a few runways for primarily regional carriers. Yet on February 23, the air was also filled with a sense of excitement. This was to be a momentous Friday.

At around 3.30pm on a makeshift, grass-less pitch close to the creek, the world’s greatest footballer would run out to face Al Nasr. Brazilian side Santos were in town as part of their world tour and with them came the likes of World Cup winners Carlos Alberto, Djalma Santos and Clodoaldo. There was, however, no denying the star attraction.

Pele, at 29, arrived in the newly formed UAE having lifted the World Cup three times and been handed the Golden Ball at the 1970 tournament in Mexico. His standing at the summit of the global game was undisputed and the Nasr players, almost all of whom were Emirati, had been preparing for more than a month for his arrival.

The club’s Al Maktoum Stadium in Oud Metha did not open until 1978, so the team often trained on sand near the dry docks. The previous afternoon, Mohammed Al Kous, a young Nasr midfielder, had taken a four-wheel drive and steered it up and down this arid patch of terrain in a bid to flatten it sufficiently to play football. A few hours before kick-off, Al Kous and his teammates headed back out with buckets of white emulsion and painted the lines on the ground.

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“Can you imagine the players doing that nowadays?” he said recently from an office inside Al Maktoum Stadium. “The players before were different to now. Back then, we did everything: we prepared the field, we washed our own kits, we paid membership fees, everything. Now the players just train, play and go home. They have it easy.”

Al Kous smiles when he speaks; the bitterness in his words that could be expected are not in evidence. Now 58 and with slivers of silver through his moustache, he knows football has afforded him a comfortable life. There are, after all, more arduous chores in the world than having to wash a football shirt.

For instance, being tasked with marking Pele.

Al Kous was only 17 when his Egyptian coach, Mimi El Sharbini, pulled him aside and said he was being entrusted with shackling the greatest player in the world. The young Nasr midfielder’s response? “No way! Are you crazy? How am I going to mark Pele? I won’t see anything. I’d rather not play.”

El Sharbini instead switched Al Kous to centre-half and handed Obaid Abdulkareem the task of not letting Pele out of his sight. “Go with him everywhere, even to the toilet,” the coach said.

In that sense, Abdulkareem succeeded: the Emirati shadowed the Brazilian like a setting sun, even following him to the touchline when Pele stood speaking with Pepe, the Santos coach.

“Pele is clever, so after a short period he realised he was being man-marked and went and stood on the sidelines,” Al Kous said. “Obaid went with him and people were saying ‘Why is Pele standing doing nothing on the side? Is he injured?’

“At the post-match party, Pele explained that he had just taken himself out of the game and left a big space in the middle of the field for his teammates to exploit. Obaid should have left him on the side, but we were so scared of what Pele could do, he went with him.”

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When Pele was reunited with Al Kous last year during a promotional event for Emirates Airline in Dubai, the Brazilian, then 73, immediately asked: “Where is the player who was marking me?”

Information regarding the match is sparse, but former Nasr players recall it being promoted for one week beforehand. Club representatives visited local schools to spread the word that, for the first time, a team from outside the Middle East would be playing in the Emirates. Advertisements appeared in Al Ittihad newspaper, the Arabic-language sister newspaper of The National, and radio spots were broadcast in Sharjah and Fujairah.

“The lifestyle was very different,” said Al Kous, who went on to captain Nasr during a career that spanned 21 years and also included short spells at Al Ain and Al Shaab.

“Now people go to the mall or watch on television or have their own business to run, but back then nobody stayed at home when there was a competition. The only hobby then was watching football and when they heard Santos and Pele were coming, there was great interest.”

Mohammed Kahor, Al Kous’s partner in the heart of the Nasr defence, remembers the anticipation growing as the day of the match approached.

“The club had made posters and they were stuck up all over the city,” said Kahor, now Al Nasr’s club manager. “Pele was at the height of his fame so everybody was very excited. Before the game, myself and two other teammates were interviewed by a Dubai television channel. I remember how we were all looking forward to the match, hoping we would be selected to play.”

Emirati dirhams were not introduced for another three months, so those who bought tickets paid 30 Qatar and Dubai riyals, about Dh30. Those who had paid their annual Nasr membership fees of QDR2.5 gained complimentary access.

The demand was such that, by the time the lithe Brazilian wearing the white No 10 shirt walked out, somewhere between 12,000 and 15,000 people were huddled on the sandy embankments surrounding the makeshift pitch.

“Even though it was a long time ago, I remember the fans,” Kahor said. “At that time, the price of tickets was quite a lot of money, so we never expected so many people, but the stands were totally full.”

Al Kous added: “It was like a carnival for us” with Pele “at his peak, but playing against us for fun. Sometimes he would catch the ball on his chest, other times on his head. We didn’t know how to play against him. To be honest, we didn’t even care about the score, we just wanted to watch him play. It was an unbelievable experience – like a dream.”

The match ended 4-1 to Santos, but Pele was kept off the score sheet.

The match reports the next day would suggest his performance was underwhelming, yet Al Kous distinctly remembers one passage of play by the forward that left the Nasr players speechless.

The world’s most famous No 10 is running towards goal when a ball comes over the top. Its trajectory falls just short, so he touches it with his heel to flick it forward and continues his run.

The ball is looping over his head when, as if being controlled by a video game, he stops dead and turns 180 degrees so his back is to goal. Then, from a standing position, he leaps and hits a perfect bicycle kick.

“I forgot to even watch the ball. It was just the perfect technique – I could only focus on him. I don’t know how he got such height,” Al Kous said.

“When we landed on the sand, we would crash down and take five minutes to check our legs are still there and our heart is still beating, but when he landed, it was so graceful. He was back on his feet and running immediately, all one smooth movement.”

When the final whistle blew, the Nasr players had done themselves proud – “scoring one against Santos is equal to conceding 10,” Al Kous said – but there was no clamour to find Pele. The Brazilians would remain in the emirate for a dinner party, and the immediate prospect of swapping shirts to claim the No 10 jersey was not an option.

“We had only 11 blue shirts for the whole team and played in them for what felt like 10 years,” Al Kous said. “We washed them ourselves and trained in them the next day. If a player was substituted, he had to remove his shirt and give it to the new player, no matter if it was too big, too small or dripping with sweat. The player coming on would tuck it in and try to play. I spent so much time washing that shirt.”

At the post-match party, the teams mingled, neither able to communicate with the other due to language barriers, but all comfortable exchanging basic pleasantries and enjoying the food and drinks that had been laid on.

Pele, despite being the most recognisable footballer in the world, behaved like any other player.

There were no airs and graces, no sense of superiority.

“Pele never said ‘I am Pele, nobody touch me’,” Al Kous said. “When (Diego) Maradona appears, he is the opposite – ‘Nobody come near me’ – but Pele was very grounded. For me, he will always be No 1.”

Kahor added: “Growing up, we would watch Pele on TV and, of course, we knew about him and how good he was. I remember thinking at the time that it would be a great memory to play against him. Now, 42 years later, I still get asked about the match, so I was right. It was a day I will never forget.”

From Al Nasr magazine, published March 29, 1973 (translated from Arabic)

DUBAI: Football fans flocked to the stadium hoping to watch the match of a lifetime. Santos are a well-established world-renowned team, while Al Nasr are still young and inexperienced when it comes to international matches. At most, they would make a good show of holding on, the crowd thought. But the reality was surprisingly different.

Al Nasr not only held on against the opposing team, but even attempted a few strikes at the other team’s goal. Had they been more fortunate, they would have even managed more than the one glorious goal that Awadh Mubarak secured in the ninth minute of the second half.

Al Nasr’s performance was laudable. Players were confident against their Brazilian opponents.

As for Santos, truth be told, the crowd were expecting more. People had hoped to see some exceptional moves by the famous Pele, but the Brazilian only produced two or

three plays that got him applause from the crowd. He spent the rest of the match walking up and down the field, giving instructions to teammates.

Santos came to the field thinking they would be playing against an insignificant, inexperienced team and were laid back in the beginning. But, soon after, they realised that their opponents were eager to come out with honourable results, which provided the crowd with some excitement.

The crowd criticised the other team’s players’ aggressive behaviour at times, as well as the goalkeeper’s malice when he faked a muscle spasm to give his team a chance to drink some water that was brought on by the team’s masseur. The referee was furious and hurled the water bottles off the field.

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae

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