UAE then and now: Zayed Sports City, the stadium that hosted Muhammad Ali and the Pope

Abu Dhabi's theatre of dreams is an architectural triumph of concrete arches and curves

Today, life in the Emirates moves in the fast lane. In a regular series to mark the 50th anniversary of the UAE, we take a little trip back in time and see just how much the country has changed.

Abu Dhabi’s very own theatre of dreams has seen many memorable occasions, from sporting victories to boxing exhibitions to the historic mass given by Pope Francis.

Originally called the Sheikh Zayed Stadium, Zayed Sports City opened in January 1980, with the UAE national football team hosting a series of friendly games. The country hosted its first football tournament, the sixth Gulf Cup of Nations, two years later.

Conceived by Sheikh Zayed in the mid 1970s, the stadium’s distinctive ring of concrete arches is the work of French architects Henri Colboc, Pierre Dalidet and George Philippe.

Built at a cost of Dh550 million ($150m), the stadium had a capacity of 60,000, although improvements and renovations have reduced this to 45,000 today. Even so, it remains the largest stadium in the UAE.

Forty years ago, Zayed Sports City would have been on the edge of the city and, in fact, sits partly on land reclaimed from the sea. It forms part of a complex of sporting facilities, including an ice rink, tennis stadium and ten pin bowling centre.

The older photograph was taken by British photographer Matthew Ashton, who was in town to cover the 1996 AFC Asian Cup.

"The architecture really echoed the feel and vibe of the country and the surrounding culture," said Mr Ashton. "The arches, the tones and the materials used made it feel like a stadium in the desert; it fits into the landscape. You do not see many circular stadiums."

Over the years, Zayed Sports City has hosted games for the Fifa Club World Cup, the Fifa World Youth Championship and the 2007 final of the Gulf Cup of Nations, which was won by the UAE. The stadium also saw the UAE defeat Manchester City 1-0 in a 2009 friendly.

"I have photographed many thousands of football matches in nearly 100 countries," said Mr Ashton. "For exterior architecture, I would ... say that it is my fop five stadiums in the world for this. It is very unusual to have a stadium with so many vertical structures."

The venue has also hosted other novel events, such as one for boxing legend Muhammad Ali. The Greatest came to the UAE in 1982 for a series of exhibition bouts in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Bon Jovi and George Michael have also performed there.

It even features in the design of the Dh200 note.

The stadium was also packed to capacity for a mass held by Pope Francis during his first visit to the UAE in February 2019.

Its seats are empty today, the result of the coronavirus pandemic, but Zayed Sports City still continues to serve the country, today as a Covid-19 screening centre.

Updated: July 7th 2021, 7:11 AM
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