State visit kicked off passion for football

It is said football came to Dubai when Bakheet Salem returned from Cairo in 1962, carrying a cargo of Zamalek jerseys from the city’s famous club.

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It is said football came to Dubai when Bakheet Salem returned from Cairo in 1962, carrying a cargo of Zamalek jerseys from the city’s famous club.

The sheikh’s bodyguard had travelled to Cairo as part of the entourage of Sheikh Rashid bin Mohammed, late Ruler of Dubai and father of the current Ruler and Vice President, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid.

Mr Salem attended a Zamalek match during the state visit as guests of the late Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser. He was so impressed with their win that he signed up for membership.

Mr Salem, who also played as a midfielder, returned to Dubai with his membership card and stories of Zamalek’s prowess on the pitch.

His friends in Zaabeel named their team after the club and adopted its white and red colours as their own.

Many are aware of the legacy that Egyptian teachers, doctors and engineers left on the UAE’s early development. Pan-Arab ideology also extended to sport and Egyptian players and coaches were actively involved in football’s development in the Arabian Gulf.

In Zaabeel, youths would gather around the radio to hear matches broadcast on Cairo’s Voice of the Arabs station.

To this day, Emiratis of all ages have clear loyalties to the rival Egyptian clubs.

“Personally I’m Zamalek,” says Ashraf Mohammed, 46, the Al Wasl general manager. “Why Real Madrid and not Barcelona? Why Liverpool and not Chelsea? It’s a choice.”

The Zaabeel team retained its Cairo name until 1974, when a football federation was formed and amalgamated Dubai clubs.

Zamalek changed its moniker to Al Wasl, the name of old Dubai. Dubai’s Al Ahli Club has no connection with the Egyptian club.

Al Wasl fans retain their loyalty to Zamalek players, past and present.

“I never supported Al Ahly,” says Rashed bin Hashem, 66, a former Al Wasl player and manager.

“I like Zamalek. We don’t know why, it comes from nurturing.”

He still has Mr Salem’s Zamalek membership card.

azacharias@thenational.ae