DUBAI, United Arab emirates — It was never going to be easy for 10 soccer players from Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain to take on the likes of Brazilian legends Ricardo Kaká and Julio Cesar, Spain’s Carles Puyol and Robert Pires of France.
And without the valiant performance of Emirati goalkeeper Waleed Salem, who threw himself around, sweating buckets, to stop ball after ball from entering the net, the 12-4 result would have been far worse.
But the result was not the point of this hour-long soccer spectacle held on artificial turf at the soon-to-close Dubai Expo in the United Arab Emirates.
Rather, it was a celebration of the real Abraham Accords, the normalization of ties brokered by the US between Israel and the other countries making up the team of the same name.
There were ten players on the field at any one time, watched by several hundred who had obtained tickets for the stands and scores more glued to the fence between the pitch and the central boulevard of Dubai Expo.
The star-studded World Legends Team was made up of Kaká and Cesar from Brazil; Spain’s Puyol and Michel Salgado; Argentina’s Javier Saviola; Jay Jay Okocha of Nigeria; France’s Pires, Bacary Sanga, and Claude Makélélé; and Clarence Seedorf from Holland.
Israel was represented by Tal Ben Haim, whose father watched from the sidelines and whose many former teams include Chelsea and Manchester City; Salim Tuama, who has played 13 times for the Israel national team; and Maor Buzaglo, who retired from the sport in January, leaving his final club, Hapoel Tel Aviv.
From the UAE came Waleed Salem, Ahmad Hassan, Bakheet Saad, Basheer Saed, and Humaid Fakher. Abdulrahman Mubarak and Mamood Abdulrahman represented Bahrain. Morocco’s players had to cancel as they had a World Cup qualifying match.
Israel’s Buzaglo scored the first goal for the Abraham Accords team, with Tuama netting the next two and the UAE’s Ahmad Hassan putting in the fourth. Pires scored four of the goals for the World Legends Team.
The idea for the game was hatched by US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides, and quickly adopted by the UAE, which organized the players.
In the front row of the game sat Nides, Israeli Culture Minister Chili Tropper, UAE Minister of Entrepreneurship and Small and Medium Enterprises Ahmad Belhoul Al Falasi, Bahrain’s Minister of Sports and Youth Affairs Ayman bin Tawfiq Al-Moayed, and Morocco’s Minister of Culture, Youth and Communication Mohamed Mehdi Bensaid.
The UAE’s Culture and Youth Minister Noura al Kaabi, busy during the game with guests at the World Government Summit, taking place in Dubai at the same time, joined the festivities later at an event catered by chefs from the four participating countries. There, the four culture ministers signed a Joint Declaration on Culture and Sport for Peace from which to launch additional collaborations in the future.
The ministers also visited each other’s national pavilions at the Dubai Expo.
During the halftime break, Nides and Tropper took to the field for a knock-about, with Tropper shooting the ball past Nides in goal.
“I let Chili score on me, I wanted him to feel good,” joked Nides. “I won’t get into trouble with the US,” retorted Tropper.
Nides, Tropper, and Noura al Kaabi all agreed that sport was an ideal bridge between cultures.
“It’s the people-to-people stuff that really matters,” said Nides. “Add this to the ministerial meeting we did (of foreign ministers from Israel, Bahrain, the UAE, Morocco, Egypt, who met earlier this week for a landmark regional summit in the southern Negev Desert), “and it’s quite something.”
“That’s how peace between peoples looks,” said Tropper. “Peace agreements are just the beginning. I’m sure this is the start of a great friendship.”
“Through culture and arts, things move faster than anything else,” said al Kaabi, adding that Israel and the UAE were looking at possibilities for artist residencies and student scholarships. A memorandum of understanding has already been signed between the University of Haifa in northern Israel and Zayed University in Dubai.
But in a reminder that Israel’s relations with Palestinians are a far cry from those on show in Dubai, Nides took a minute out to tweet his condolences on hearing of Tuesday’s deadly terror attack in Bnei Brak in which a Palestinian attacker killed five people.