DUBAI: Unless you happen to be a football fanatic of a certain age, chances are you’ve never heard of the only time a unified Gulf team took to the field 40 years ago.
On Feb. 25, 1980, to mark Kuwait’s 19th National Day, reigning West German champions Hamburg were invited to take part in an exhibition match against a team made up of the Gulf’s finest. The list of players still reads as the who’s who of the region’s all-time greats.
Kuwait was represented by their peerless trio of Jasem Yaqoub, Faisal Al Dakheel and Fathi Kameel, as well as captain Saad Al Houti, goalkeeper Ahmed Al Tarabulsi, Abdullah Mayouf, Mahboub Jumaa and Abdullah Al Buloushi. Saudi and Qatar provided arguably their greatest ever players in Majid Abdullah and. Mansour Muftah. And the Emirati duo of Abdulkareem Khamas and Jumaa Rabih were joined by Bahrain’s Hamood Sultan and Khalil Shuaitar.
Hamburg may be going through some difficult times currently, but at that moment in time they were widely considered one of Europe’s best.
This was a formidable team that had won the Bundesliga in 1978-79, and included European Footballer of the Year Kevin Keegan. As well as Felix Magath, Manfred Kaltz and Horst Hrubesch, all who would go on to win Euro 80 with West Germany that summer in Italy.
Managed by Croatian coach Branko Zebec, Hamburg were on their way to the European Cup final for the first time in their history, a match they would eventually lose to Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest at the Bernabeu Stadium that May.
In a carnival like atmosphere at Al Kuwait Sports Club stadium, the Gulf team stepped out in commemorative white shirts tailored for the event. Unfortunately, that clashed with Hamburg’s famous white tops. Hurriedly, a set of Kuwait’s national team red away shirts were brought out for the Gulf team to change into.
Not surprisingly, when the match kicked off, the Gulf players looked exactly what they were; a collection of gifted players the majority of had never played together before. It took only seven minutes for Hamburg to take the lead, Hrubesch scoring with a trademark header. Though not much was riding on the result, it looked like it could be a long and painful afternoon for the Gulf selection.
Although mostly on the defensive, the Gulf team were slowly getting their rhythm and on the 26th minute Yaqoub found Abdullah with a flick and the Saudi forward’s brilliant run was capped with a skip past Hamburg goalkeeper Rudi Kargus and a calm finish.
It was time for Hamburg to flex their muscles again, and Jürgen Milewski beat a flatfooted Gulf defense to score a second from close range on 35 minutes.
Only five minutes after the break two became three for Hamburg when Yugoslav defender Ivan Buljan headed powerfully from a corner past Al Tarabulsi.
The difference in quality and understanding was clear, and the feared thrashing was becoming reality. A further five minutes later and the German team were 4-1 up thanks to Milewski’s second of the afternoon, after some more woeful defending from the Gulf team.
Keegan was by that point buzzing all over the pitch and legendary Kuwaiti commentator Khalid Al Harban memorably remarked that the England captain “wears number seven and it seems like there’s seven of him on the pitch”.
The Gulf team quickly pulled one back through a one-two made in Kuwait, Kameel finding Yaqoub, who scored with a clinical left-footed shot past Kargus.
(Video footage: YouTube)
The respite proved fleeting as Hamburg yet again shifted gears, another joyously-constructed attack leading to a corner. Yet again, from the corner, the Gulf team’s defending was almost non-existent and Milewski comfortably completed his hat-trick to give Hamburg a 5-2 lead.
With only 58 gone, few would have bet against at least a few more goals from the German champions.
What happened next turned what was a celebratory, if hugely one-sided, affair into a match that those lucky enough to be inside the stadium, or who were watching on television across the Gulf, would cherish forever.
On 63 minutes, Muftah found Yaqoub, who in one movement managed to beat the Hamburg defensive line and score with another deadly left-footer; 5-3 and game on.
After the flurry of five goals in 18 second-half minutes, the match settled down into something resembling a normal match, with the Gulf team becoming increasingly dangerous.
It would take until the 81st minute for the next goal to arrive, and it came with Al Dakheel setting up the rampant Muftah to make it 5-4.
It may have only been a friendly, and the intensity of the Hamburg players had clearly dropped, but a match that was drifting towards a forgone conclusion was all of a sudden bubbling with anticipation.
Appropriately, the equalizer would come from two of Kuwait’s three legendary front players, Kameel’s cushioned pass gleefully dispatched by Yaqoub to complete his hat-trick. The wild celebrations were in marked contrast to the handshakes and gentle jogs seen earlier in the match.
As ever, exhibition matches of this nature tend to produce a high number of goals, and 5-5, on paper, would indicate perhaps a casual affair. But try telling those ecstatic Kuwaiti fans, not to mention the players themselves, that this was a meaningless comeback. The Gulf’s finest had taken on a European giant and given as good as they got.
The year would prove a landmark one for Kuwait’s golden generation in particular. A commendable showing at the 1980 Moscow Olympics in July saw Yaqoub and co reach the quarter-finals where they were knocked out by hosts the Soviet Union. And in September, Kuwait, managed by future World Cup winner Carlos Alberto Parreira, gloriously claimed the AFC Asian Cup on home soil, Al Dakheel scoring twice in the final against South Korea.
The forgotten friendly against Hamburg may not go down in history alongside those achievements, but it remains the only time a Gulf team has ever taken to the field together. And that in itself, is worth remembering four decades on.