The forgotten story of how a unified Gulf team took on Kevin Keegan and Hamburg

Hamburg's line-up included European Footballer of the Year Kevin Keegan. (File/AFP)
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Updated 16 September 2020

The forgotten story of how a unified Gulf team took on Kevin Keegan and Hamburg

  • The one-off match was in celebration of Kuwait’s 19th national day
  • The Kuwait team had to change their shorts because of a color clash

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. 

Saudi Arabia celebrates 20th year of first Olympic medal win

Updated 28 September 2020

Saudi Arabia celebrates 20th year of first Olympic medal win

  • Hadi Souan scooped silver in Sydney at 29; athlete says success was for whole nation

JEDDAH: Saudi Arabia’s first Olympic medal win 20 years ago inspired a generation of athletes and was a catalyst for the development of sport, according to the president of the Kingdom’s Olympic committee.

Hadi Souan won silver in the 400m hurdles at the Sydney Games in 2000.

The accomplishment was one of many in a long and successful journey for the athlete, who became a board member of the Saudi Arabian Athletics Federation (SAAF), the Saudi Arabian Olympic Committee (SAOC) Assembly, a member of the Olympic Council of Asia Athlete Commission, sports and events manager at Qiddiya Investment Company, a member of the Saudi Sports Arbitration Center, and a member of the SAOC’s International Relations Committee.

“Today we celebrate Souan’s achievement, which inspired a generation of Saudi athletes and was a catalyst for the development of sport in the Kingdom,” said the SAOC’s president, Prince Abdul Aziz bin Turki Al-Faisal. “It gives me great pleasure to see sport thriving in Saudi Arabia. We are committed to ensuring that this trend continues and that the Kingdom’s next generation enjoys the benefits of participating in sport, both in Saudi Arabia and at major global sporting events.”

Souan started out as a footballer but took up athletics in PE class, winning second place in a school championship. He qualified to compete at the Kingdom level and went on to become a national team member in less than a year.

He started with the high jump, then decathlon and finally found himself taking on the 400m hurdles.

He trained under Egyptian coach Mohammed Thu Alfaqqar from 1991, under the Americans until 1994, and under 1968 Olympic gold medalist Lee Evans. But the best place Souan remembers training at was UCLA.

“It is a sport and artistic society indeed,” he said. “We spoke, ate, slept, and even relaxed for sport. These little things and the different sleeping habits here and there made me suffer a bit when I came back from the States, but we got used to it and I knew it made a difference in my lifestyle and mentality-wise.”

Souan also trained the European way in Paris under a Russian coach and France’s Amadou Dia Ba. “Hence I started to learn the difference between European and American schools,” he added. The US schools concentrated on endurance, while the French focused on speed.

He was grateful for the exposure to different cultures while training abroad with elite athletes, especially at a time when there was limited social awareness about the importance of sport.

“When I started training with US 400m hurdler Kevin Young, who clocked an Olympic record of 46.78 seconds at the 1992 Barcelona Games and which remains unbeaten until now, I felt that I could do what he is doing. I only need to be determined, disciplined, and committed and everything from there started to become imaginable. I started to see myself winning and when the time came and toward the end of the race I knew I was getting there but I wasn’t first. First place went to American Angelo Taylor who won in 47.50 seconds, while I did 47.53.”

He remembers the winning moment and never expected how the country would react to his achievement. It was overwhelming. 

He modestly said it was not his success alone, that it was a success for the whole nation and all of his team headed by the former SAAF president Prince Nawaf bin Mohammed, agent Emanuel Hudson, and coach John Smith. They all worked hard to create the right environment for him to deliver the medals.

“We were welcomed by the late King Fahd of Saudi Arabia, by the former president of General Presidency of Youth Welfare Prince Sultan bin Fahd, and everyone was happy and proud of what we did. I knew then that what I was fortunate to do was not simple at all and, luckily, was appreciated. I believe everyone started to look up for Saudis in athletics and watch out for similar future talents.”

The beauty of sport, he added, was its spirit and the values that were learned and developed through years of training, competing, winning and losing. 

“Although Taylor won first place we all, as a sports community, remain friends and also competed afterwards in several matches where he again took first place and I came second again. He came from a distance running race which allowed him to master his skills at the end of the 400m hurdles events, his approach was and still is just amazing.”

Souan won the silver medal aged 29 at his second Olympic appearance, in what he felt was perfect timing as he might not have been as successful at subsequent Games.

“Usually when you get to taste that level of achievement on a global scale you want more, but I knew that it was time to give back now and help my teammate and younger generations taste it at an early age.”

That’s how I got involved in the athletics federation and the Sports Ministry afterwards.”

He said that it did not matter how someone was built, as long as they had the willpower to work on their body and skills in order to become the best they could be in the sport that they liked. He added that parents had greater awareness, as did athletes, and wished that more Saudis could do what he could not.

Although Souan retired as an athlete at the age of 34, after competing in the 2006 Asian Games in Qatar, he was and still is a role model who keeps giving back to his country. Because of his passion for sports he was a physical education teacher and then supervisor at the Ministry of Education. 

“I always felt responsible to keep my record clean because I’ve seen how parents and students used to look up to me so, as an Olympian, I wanted to give a good example.”

In addition to the Olympic silver medal he won, with an Asian record of 47.53 seconds, Souan counts the 2001 Goodwill Games hurdles silver from Brisbane as his most prized possession. 

All told Souan has won 40 gold medals including one from the 2002 Asian Games in Busan, South Korea.