How an Abu Dhabi team beat 'England' in the emirate's first international football game

The match in 1955 took place on hard sand near Qasr Al Hosn, featured three sheikhs and a Royal Navy team playing in full uniform

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The World Cup has seen a feast of football in the Gulf, with 32 of the top international teams playing 64 games before the golden trophy is finally lifted at the Lusail Stadium on December 18.

But international football made its debut in the UAE over 60 years earlier, when England — or at least the crew of a Royal Navy frigate — took on a scratch side from Abu Dhabi that included three sheikhs.

The pitch for the friendly match was an area of hard sand used for holiday celebrations next to Qasr Al Hosn, and, although the exact score is not recorded, the Abu Dhabi team emerged clear winners.

Half time at a football match between an Abu Dhabi team and the Royal Navy team from the survey ship HMS Owen in February, 1955. Photo: Susan Hillyard

The above photo shows the half time break during the game, in February 1955, with both sides mingling and the sailors in their uniforms, which included navy caps.

It was taken by Susan Hillyard, whose husband Tim was part of the Abu Dhabi team and in charge of Abu Dhabi Marine Area’s off-shore oil exploration effort at the time.

Mr Hillyard, who had played football at Oxford University, joined two Pakistani brothers who were looking for work as cooks, along with three young sheikhs, who brought several tribesman to make up the numbers for Abu Dhabi.

The sheikhs, Mrs Hillyard recorded in her book Before the Oil, had seen football played at the Royal Air Force base in Sharjah and explained the rules to the others.

Sheikh Shakhbut greets Susan Hillyard and her daughter Deborah in Abu Dhabi in the winter of 1957. Courtesy Susan Hillyard

A pre-match meal was held on HMS Owen. Mrs Hillyard wrote: “Whether by luck, the lunch, or the barefoot agility … of the locals, the Abu Dhabians beat the heavily booted ‘Owens’ soundly.”

The match did have a more serious purpose.

HMS Owen had been converted to a survey ship after the Second World War, and was in the region to map the Arabian Gulf in 1955.

Among the crew was a doctor, and the arrival of the ship on a courtesy visit to Abu Dhabi was a chance for him to examine and diagnose medical problems in the town, which had no health facilities at the time.

To bring people together, an impromptu sports day was arranged, with the football match just one highlight.

A target shooting contest with rifles was followed by archery, with Sheikh Zayed, who was visiting from Al Ain, hitting the bullseye with his arrow at the second attempt.

A crowd watches the long jump at a sports day organised during the visit of HMS Owen to Abu Dhabi in February, 1955. Photo: Susan Hillyard

Other activities included long jump and a tug of war between six sailors and 12 local men. Mrs Hillyard said it soon turned into a contest between most of Abu Dhabi and the entire ship’s company.

“When there was no more room on the rope, the contestants hung on to each other’s waists until all collapsed laughing on the ground,” she wrote.

“The women stood in the background enjoying it all.”

Updated: December 16, 2022, 6:00 PM