Golden oldies past their prime but still play their part at Dubai Indoor Championship, writes Ali Khaled.
Football legends are exploring the great indoors of Dubai
Former football players don't really retire, they just go wherever the action takes them. Over the past week, duty called in Dubai.
Managing, coaching, analysing and commentating are all a part of a former professional's duties. But nothing in football comes close to playing.
At least it is for former players from four of Europe's top teams – Roma, Porto, Real Madrid and Barcelona – as well as a group of Emirati, Moroccan, Egyptian and Algerian favourites, who for the last five days have been taking part in the Dubai Indoor Championship, which took place alongside Dubai Sports World, the region's largest indoor sporting event.
The fans would not have been disappointed by the efforts of those who showed up.
The likes of Real Madrid's Michel Salgado, now ambassador to Dubai Sports Council, and French World Cup winner Christian Karembeu, Damiano Tommasi and Brazilian World Cup winner Aldair from Roma, and Joao Pinto of Porto. For ex-full time professionals, clearly nothing beats the thrill of putting on their football boots, or flat trainers in this case, and crossing the white line on to the pitch.
"Of course, I prefer to play, I still play many matches with Real Madrid and with French national team, when we play for charity," Karembeu said. "And of course when we get these kinds of invitations in Dubai."
Algerian legend Lakhdar Belloumi may have been a no-show, but there was still enough Arab talent on show, among them Bkhit Saad of the UAE, and Mohamed Abdrabou of Egypt, to keep the locals happy.
Throughout, the standard of play was high, and so was the enjoyment factor for the players.
"It's always a good opportunity to come back again," Karembeu, who played in the 1998 World Cup final against Brazil, said of playing in Dubai. "The competition is now well known already after three years."
The European giants might have been familiar with each other, but they could not have counted on the tough challenges that came from their Arab opponents, especially the Egyptian Stars.
The Egyptians had already beaten Real Madrid in the group stages, and on Saturday night completed a clasico double by defeating Barcelona 2-1 after extra time in the first semi-final.
Showing commendable fitness, passing ability and skill, they took the event by storm. No one was here for a gentle run around, and no one epitomised the continued hunger of the players than the scorer of the winning goal.
"I've been playing these tournaments for five years, but I've played indoor football for 15 years now," Mahmood Mohammad said. "I play for Al Ahli in Qatar as a professional futsal player, and in all play football for nine months of the year."
Indoor football requires its own brand of fitness, and the various surfaces play a part too.
"I prefer playing futsal, the pitch here is a little heavy," he said pointing at the pitch. "It's a little like playing on a normal pitch."
Ultimately, for any player, there will come a day when the legs will give up on them, but Mohammad hopes that day remains far off.
"In the future I do hope to become a manager, playing is far better of course," he said. "Playing is easier, coaching is hard."
One thing was clear over the competition's five days – the players' love of football is matched by their desire to stay fit. And competitive. This was a far cry from the early days of similar indoor affairs when overweight retired players would be huffing and puffing within minutes of the start of a game.
If anyone were in any doubt to how seriously these players take the action, the second semi-final between Real Madrid and Roma would have dispelled them.
The likes of Francisco Pavon and Salgado for the Spanish giants, and Tommasi and Aldair for the Italians, remain supremely trim, fit professionals. They also hate losing. There were plenty of late tackles and the occasional shoving matches between players.
At the end, it was the Roma players who were celebrating a narrow 2-1 win. Karembeu was generous with his praise for the opponents, but clearly disappointed by the loss.
"It's normal, we need to be realistic and say that they deserved it for their two goals," he said as Madrid's tournament came to an end. "We wanted to get to the final, but these things happen."
Roma would go on to win the championship match with a 2-1 win over the Egyptian Stars.
As for the tournament, the fans enjoyed it, but you get the feeling not half as much as the players. They will be back, again, and again. And for Karembeu, one word sums up why.
"Playing, it's a passion."
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