x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

A country grows up fast, just like its carpark footballers

The places where one accumulates precious memories may later change beyond recognition, but the memories themselves are unaltered by time.

The greatest goal ever scored? It happened in 1977, or maybe it was 1982. One by one the defenders - all four of them - succumbed to the little midfield maestro's mazy run. Occasionally he would go back to beat the same man twice, just for the fun of it. The goalkeeper, a shambling, shivering wreck by this point, was majestically swerved. The scenes of joy that followed did justice to the glory of that goal.

At least that's how I remember it. And I should know; I scored it.

The fabled goal would have graced the Maracana in Rio or Wembley in London. But it took place in Abu Dhabi: in the car park next to my parents' house in Khalidiya, to be exact.

I recently drove by the spot where that old parking lot used to be, and it's been mostly replaced by two high-rise towers. Nostalgia, as they say, ain't what it used to be.

The capital today might be unrecognisable from the fledgling city of those heady days, but many of us who grew up on its quiet streets still pine for the "nothingness" that surrounded us then.

A few metres from our house, you could cross the Corniche road and be on the white sandy beach in seconds, without once having to sidestep a shisha cafe.

Hamdan and Khalifa Streets, Airport Road, Khalidiya and the Tourist Club area (it was always called that) - these were the main landmarks. No sectors, no street numbers. If you knew these, you couldn't go far wrong. Indeed, you couldn't go far at all.

A taxi ride from one end of town to the other took less than ten minutes and cost less than Dh10.

Lots of things cost only Dh10 back then. Like those wonderful old Thomsun Original cassettes - that were anything but original - which we bought from the music stores in Hamdan Centre. And we bought whatever the DJs on Capital Radio (93.5 FM) told us to get. In Abu Dhabi, it would be a few years yet before MTV would kill the radio star.

Football and music. Like kids all over the world, we could always count on them for company.

And if you're going to score the greatest goal in the history of football, you better look the part, too. For all our footie gear we went to the old Central Souq, which like my old pitch is gone. Kazim Sports, my favourite shop, had the latest in Adibas (sic) boots and fake Liverpool and Nottingham Forest shirts. "Original my friend, from America," the shop owner would reassure us, and who were we to argue. Kenny Dalglish would have been proud with the heroics that his shirt played on those concrete streets.

In the late 1970s, Abu Dhabi had only one television channel (one!). And although Atari, VHS and girls increasingly distracted us as we grew older, the street was pretty much where we hung out. (Although less in a gangster sort of way, and more in a loiter by the dukkan eating crisps and sipping juice way).

The sense of menace, however, was considerably ramped up once we started frequenting fast food joints and listening to our Sony Walkmans (that's the iPhone's great, great grandfather, kids).

There was a gem of a diner called McDonal tucked on Salaam Street, complete with yellow arches and everything. Tragically, it was shut down thanks to those pesky copyright laws (thanks a lot globalisation). We did have a Wimpy's, a Dairy Queen and a Hardee's though. And the excitement engendered by the opening of the first real McDonald's in Abu Dhabi has no equivalent in the modern era.

And then one day, sadly, I grew up, and stopped hanging out on the streets. But the memories of that quaint Abu Dhabi remain.

These days, I don't see many kids kicking a ball around the streets anymore. Or maybe they are out there, just hidden behind those big buildings.

Let's hope so; it's the only way the greatest goal in the history of football will ever be bettered.

 

akhaled@thenational.ae

Follow him on Twitter: @AliKhaled_