DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — It has never been easy for 10 footballers from Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain to face Brazilian legends Ricardo Kaká and Julio Cesar, Spaniard Carles Puyol and Frenchman Robert Pires.
And had it not been for the valiant performance of Emirati goalkeeper Waleed Salem, who threw himself around, sweating buckets, to prevent ball after ball from entering the net, the 12-4 result would have been much worse.
But the result was not the goal of this hour-long football spectacle which took place on artificial turf at the impending closure of the Dubai Expo in the United Arab Emirates.
Rather, it was a celebration of the true Abraham Accords, the normalization of US-brokered ties between Israel and the other countries that make up the team of the same name.
There were ten players on the pitch at any one time, watched by several hundred who had secured grandstand tickets and dozens more glued to the fence between the pitch and Dubai Expo’s central boulevard.
The star-studded World Legends team consisted of Kaká and Cesar from Brazil; the Spaniards Puyol and Michel Salgado; Argentinian Javier Saviola; Jay Jay Okocha of Nigeria; the French Pires, Bacary Sanga and Claude Makélélé; and Clarence Seedorf from Holland.
Israel was represented by Tal Ben Haim, whose father watched from behind the scenes and whose many former teams include Chelsea and Manchester City; Salim Tuama, who played 13 times for the Israel national team; and Maor Buzaglo, who retired from the sport in January, leaving his last club, Hapoel Tel Aviv.
From the United Arab Emirates came Waleed Salem, Ahmad Hassan, Bakheet Saad, Basheer Saed and Humaid Fakher. Abdulrahman Mubarak and Mamood Abdulrahman represented Bahrain. The Moroccan players had to cancel because they had a World Cup qualifier.
Israeli Buzaglo scored the first goal for the Abraham Accords side, Tuama scoring the next two and Emirati Ahmad Hassan the fourth. Pires scored four of the goals for the World Legends team.
The idea for the game was floated by US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides and quickly adopted by the United Arab Emirates, who organized the players.
In the front row of the match sat Nides, Israeli Minister of Culture Chili Tropper, UAE Minister of Entrepreneurship and Small and Medium Enterprises Ahmad Belhoul Al Falasi, Bahraini Minister of Sports and Youth Ayman bin Tawfiq Al- Moayed and Moroccan Minister of Culture, Youth and Communication Mohamed Mehdi Bensaïd.
UAE Minister of Culture and Youth Noura al Kaabi, busy during the match with guests at the World Government Summit, which is taking place in Dubai at the same time, joined the festivities later at a event organized by chefs from the four participating countries. There, the four ministers of culture signed a joint declaration on culture and sport for peace from which to launch further collaborations in the future.
The ministers also visited each other’s national pavilions at Expo Dubai.
During the half-time break, Nides and Tropper took to the pitch for a knockout, with Tropper firing the ball past Nides into the goal.
“I let Chili score on me, I wanted him to feel good,” Nides joked. “I won’t get in trouble with the United States,” Tropper retorted.
Nides, Tropper and Noura al Kaabi all agreed that sport was an ideal bridge between cultures.
“It’s the things between people that really matter,” Nides said. “Add that to the ministerial meeting we hosted (of foreign ministers from Israel, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Morocco and Egypt, who met earlier this week for a historic regional summit in the southern Negev desert), “and that’s something”.
“This is what peace between peoples looks like,” Tropper said. “The peace agreements are just the beginning. I’m sure this is the start of a great friendship.
“Through culture and the arts, things move faster than anything else,” al Kaabi said, adding that Israel and the UAE are considering opportunities for artist residencies and scholarships. A memorandum of understanding has already been signed between the University of Haifa in northern Israel and Zayed University in Dubai.
But recalling that Israel’s relations with the Palestinians are a far cry from those on display in Dubai, Nides took a minute to tweet his condolences after hearing about Tuesday’s deadly terror attack in Bnei Brak in which a Palestinian attacker killed five people.