Al-Shabab v Al-Fayah, Thursday 9th March 2023, 8.30pm

March 21, 2023

There’s a couple of weeks to go before Ramadan starts and the decorations are already up in the hotel that I’m staying in. I’m curious as to whether there’s an acceptable date for putting up decorations and whether most people adhere to it. I’m also hoping to find out if some people feel Ramadany, in the way that some people in the UK feel more Christmassy than others.

The walk to the ground was busy with people, some going to the match, others just embracing the start of the weekend. Lots of families were picnicking outside of the park and their kids were running around in the way that small kids do. One of them was dragging a kite behind him. It had the shape and print of a bird of prey, hopefully an actual kite. When the kid got it airborne it caused one of the feral cats that lives in the area to freeze, unsure of whether it should pounce or was about to be pounced upon.

Al-Fayah were the team that I’d seen a month or so ago beating Al-Hilal here in some cup competition. I remembered them primarily because of their orange-clad fans. They hadn’t brought as many with them this time but those that did turn up kept up a constant racket, reminding me of a bunch of Hare Krishnas.

This game was in the league and of greater importance to Al-Shabab who were third in the table than Al-Fayah sitting in eighth place and with little to play for. Most eyes were on the first v second game in Jeddah between Al-Nassr and Al-Ittihad and I suspect that many Al-Shabab fans would have hoped for a draw in that fixture. Some people may have stayed home to watch it as it looked like there were fewer than two thousand spectators in the ground.

Al-Shabab opened the scoring a quarter of an hour in and added two more before half-time. At that stage it looked like game over. A kid behind me attracted my attention by shouting “Inglesi, Inglesi” at me. I’m not sure how he’d worked out my nationality from the back of my head but he proudly told me that he was from Yemen, whilst his little mate was a Saudi. Whilst we were chatting Al-Fayah pulled one back with an own goal to go in at the break two down.

The visitors came out for the re-start all fired up and halved the deficit within minutes, setting up a nervy second half. With ten minutes to go attention turned to Jeddah where Al-Ittihad had gone a goal up against Ronaldo’s team. I could see the action on a telly in an executive box and was half expecting VAR to find a way to chalk it off. It stood though and with Al-Shabab managing to see out this game for a three-two win, it meant they had closed the gap to one of their title rivals.

Al-Hilal v Al Fateh, Monday 6th March 2023, 8.30pm

March 19, 2023

Al-Hilal hadn’t played a game at home for more than six weeks due to their involvement in Morocco in the World Club Championship, or whatever it’s called these days. This was swiftly followed by the latter stages of the Asian Champions League which were played on a tournament basis in Qatar. They did well in both competitions, going down to Real Madrid in the final of the first one and qualifying for the final in the second, which will take place at the back end of April.

Either the prolonged absence or the notable achievements, or more likely a combination of the two, meant that this was a much more popular occasion than usual. Tickets generally go on sale two days before the match and with routine sales of no more than  four thousand, I didn’t make it a priority. I got around to booking my seat the day before the game and by that time the main stand had sold out. I ended up buying a ticket in the smaller stand opposite, on the curve.

The ground is only around ten minute’s walk from where I’ve been staying and I decided to set off early and do a couple of laps of the adjoining park. Despite there being an hour and a half to go to kick-off, the streets were crowded and the queues were already forming at the gates. I cut my walk short and headed in with an hour still to go.

My section already had more people in it than it usually would. The stand opposite was filling up to and eventually had few empty seats. This was for a clash between the fifth and sixth placed teams in the league and whilst Al-Hilal had played three fewer games than all of their rivals, they had had an unlikely thirteen points to make up.

The attendance was eventually announced as just short of fourteen thousand, which is three and a half times busier than I’ve seen at their games so far. Sadly, it didn’t work out as planned with Al-Hilal starting off sloppily and focusing more on showboating than securing the points.

Al Fateh went in front late in the first half and clinched the points ten minutes from time, sparking a mass exodus and taking the attendance back to a more regular level. Al-Hilal notched a consolation in added time but when the final whistle went the homecoming heroes were loudly booed as they headed for the tunnel.

Al-Nassr v Al-Batin, Friday 3rd March 2023, 8.30pm

March 15, 2023

I’m beginning to get the hang of taxis in Riyadh. Most of the drivers speak little English and my Arabic is non-existent, so I’ll suggest a destination, they will hand me their phone and I’ll enter it into google maps. Occasionally there will be a meter and even more occasionally they might turn it on.

More often than not the drivers originate from abroad, sometimes Pakistan or Afghanistan but frequently from Yemen, as was the case for my journey to Mrsool Park. Despite our lack of a common language, he rang his family back home and had me say hello and wave to them on a video call. He also stopped at a roadside vendor and got us each a bottle of water.

I’d set off early from the afternoon game I’d been at as I was mindful of the extent of the traffic last time I’d been to this stadium. The journey went well this time, perhaps partly because we approached from a different direction but mainly as I was at the ground a good hour and a half before kick-off.

I’d not had anything to eat since lunchtime and so I browsed the options on the concourse. As well as the usual burgers and hot dogs, different concessions sold cake, ice cream, popcorn, pastries, slushes and coffee. There was also a kebab place doing chicken shawarmas, which is what I went for. It was exceptionally good, way better than the ones that were sold at the World Cup.

I also got a coffee from one of the other concessions, but there’s a no drinks policy in the seats and so I had to stay down in the concourse for a while longer. The wi-fi worked fine though and I was able to keep myself occupied until nearer kick-off time.

The expectation around me was for an easy home win, which wasn’t surprising considering that Al-Nassr were top of the table with Al-Batin adrift at the bottom. It doesn’t always go to plan though and the visitors went a goal up early in the first half. The header had initially been disallowed by the ref for a push, but the decision was corrected by VAR. I say corrected, but the two fellas next to me scrutinized it on their phones and were adamant that it shouldn’t have counted.

Ronaldo could have levelled ten minutes before the break after rounding the keeper. His shot was weak though and easily cleared off the line. A-Nassr applied the pressure in the second half, but it seemed like it wouldn’t be their night. Ronaldo put a couple of free-kicks over the bar and then as the clock ran down missed with a header and then a scuffed shot.

The holding up of the board signifying an additional ten minutes finally brought the league leaders and the crowd to life and four minutes into stoppage time Al-Nassr equalized. Twelve minutes in they scrambled the winner and with Al-Batin punch-drunk, immediately added a third. Those home fans who hadn’t slunk away with ninety minutes approaching went home very happy indeed.

Al-Nassr U17 v Al-Qadasiya U17, Friday 3rd March 2023, 3.50pm

March 12, 2023

It had been a quiet couple of weeks football-wise. Al-Hilal had been involved in the Club World Cup in Morocco and then headed off to Qatar where they and Al-Shabab were playing in the knock-out stages of the Asian Champions League. Al-Nassr were playing away and there weren’t any lower level or age group games anywhere in Riyadh. Fortunately, things were back to normal by this weekend, and I had a couple of games to go to, starting with an under seventeen fixture at the Prince Abduarrahman bin Saud Stadium, or as most people refer to it, the Al-Nassr Stadium.

On the way there I stopped off to have a mooch around Masmak fortress. Around rather than inside is the correct term as it was shut. I’ll have to go back some other time when the opening hours don’t clash with a match. Walking around the perimeter it looked like something that Disney might have knocked up, so I’ll be interested to see some photos from twenty, fifty, a hundred years ago to try and gauge how much of it is original.

I didn’t hang around at Masmak and instead took at taxi to the game. It wasn’t an official cab and I doubt it would have passed an MoT. The fella quoted me a price of forty riyals and when I hesitated, he quickly dropped it to thirty. My pause had been due to not wanting to rip him off and so I offered him fifty instead. He was a little bemused at my reverse haggling technique but happy to settle for what was still around half of what other drivers might have charged for the twenty-minute journey.

Al-Nassr Stadium is out to the south-west of the city and it’s where their first team played prior to the club outbidding Al-Hilal for the use of Mrsool Park. It has a lot of wasteland around it where blokes were taking part in games of cricket. There’s a construction boom in Saudi Arabia at the moment and I suspect that it won’t be long before the makeshift wickets are claimed for tower blocks.

The security guard at the stadium gate seemed to think that I was part of the tv crew and waved me over to where they were setting up. I’d have been quite happy to have pitched in and moved some cables around, but I doubt that my efforts would have been welcomed. Instead, I left them to it and took a seat in the covered main stand where the shade provided some welcome respite from the heat. Opposite was an uncovered stand that started off empty but accommodated a few people later in the game as the sun started to go down.

There were around thirty people watching as the game kicked off. Al-Nassr took the lead early on when they beat the offside trap. I wasn’t convinced but despite the presence of the tv crew, photographers with big lenses, wags in the directors box and all of other trappings of top-flight football they don’t have VAR at this level yet and so the goal stood. A couple of minutes later an away defender failed to clear a cross and a simple finish made it two.

At that point Al-Qadasiya made their first sub. Hopefully the lad had picked up a knock and wasn’t being scapegoated for the two quick goals.

Maybe the sub made a difference as the game evened up and we reached half-time with just the two goals in it. Someone came around distributing bottles of water, which were well received. As the second half went on the crowd grew to around a hundred and fifty, some of them Al-Nassr kids from other age-group teams, others were cricketers from the wasteland calling in once they’d had enough of their own games.

Al-Nassr added a couple more goals before the end, with the four-nil score reflecting their superiority. I headed off at full-time in a taxi bound for Mrsool Park and their first team fixture.

Al-Nassr v Al Taawoun, Friday 17th February 2023, 6pm

March 9, 2023

As you might have expected I’d been keen to see Ronaldo turning out for Al-Nassr. I missed his first game at Mrsool Park, a fixture that sold out pretty much within minutes. I kept checking their website over the next few days and was rewarded with the chance to buy a half season ticket, which in this case equated to the remaining seven games. It worked out at around eighteen quid a match, so not a great deal different to the Boro.

On the morning of the game, I called in at Riyadh Zoo. It’s just around the corner from where I’m staying, and I thought it might be an interesting change from walking around the local park. I’m not really a fan of zoos, although I doubt anyone is really. With the temperatures rising in Riyadh, I arrived early. There were already a lot of people inside, mainly families, which you tend to get visiting Zoos.

Checking out animals that I’d previously seen in the wild brought back a lot of memories, from hundred-strong herds of elephants in Addo, to the sleeping brown bear that Jen and I stumbled across in Shenandoah in the US. There was an Arabian wolf, which I’ve not seen anywhere before. Hopefully I’ll get to see one of those in a more natural environment, perhaps foraging through a wheelie bin for the remains of a chicken shawarma.

A highlight might very well have been the dassies, most of which were sleeping in the sun. I spent a while just leaning on their enclosure wall as most people scurried by in search of something more prestigious. They looked thinner than the ones that would visit our garden in Bronkhorstspruit, although that might be because those little bastards would scoff the roses from the pots that I’d put on the patio.

The trip to the stadium took over an hour to cover a route that should really have taken half that time. The taxi was caught in tailbacks long before we could see the ground, which worked well for the flag and scarf sellers weaving in and out of the stationary traffic.

Once I’d got out I had to do virtually an entire lap of the ground to reach my gate, although once inside I had access to at least half of the sections. There was a separate entrance for season ticket holders and the bloke ahead of me might well have blagged his way in by pretending to talk on his phone as if too engrossed to show his ticket.

My seat for the rest of the season was ok, diagonally back from the corner flag and about three quarters of the way up a reasonably compact ground. I think that there would have been a decent view from just about everywhere. The club had left large flags out for everyone, but I was happy to shift mine along the row for some kid to pick up.

The hardcore Al-Nassr fans were behind the goal to my left. They let off a few flares before kick-off which meant that the opening minutes were played with smoke drifting around the penalty box. Most eyes were on Ronaldo and he started off busily, chasing people down, but in the way that Tuncay used to do for us where it seemed more for show than with any real intent to make a difference.

Al-Nassr went one up a quarter of an hour in, when someone who wasn’t Ronaldo chased a through ball and got there just ahead of the defender. Al-Taawoun clearly hadn’t read the script though and equalized straight after the break, before appearing to go ahead midway through the second half. VAR intervened to keep the scores level and then came to Al-Nassr’s help ten minutes from time by awarding a goal that the ref had originally chalked off.

By this stage the fella next to me was adamant that Ronaldo needed hooking, but that was never going to happen. Al-Nassr saw out the added time to take the points and move back to the top of the table.

Al-Shabab v Abha, Tuesday 14th February 2023, 6pm

March 7, 2023

With the short trip to Spain over, it was back to Saudi Arabia and another game at the Prince Faisel bin Fahd Stadium. This one was a home fixture for Al-Shabab and the big surprise was that the tickets that to date have cost me two-hundred riyals a time were only ten riyals for this match. I wondered whether it was to try and draw in those couples wondering how to celebrate Valentine’s Day. I’m told, a bit like Christmas and Halloween, it is becoming something that local businesses have realized is ripe for commercialization.

I had some stuff to do, so didn’t quite get to the ground in time for kick-off. In addition to the large reduction in price I noticed that the ticket offices were open. Maybe someone is making an effort to increase attendances and include those who like to pay cash on the day rather than having to buy online.

Once inside I concluded that the changes had made little difference. There were still fewer than four thousand people there, despite Al-Shabab being in contention for the title. I didn’t notice too many date-night couples either, although there were more children in the ground than previously. Hopefully the drop in ticket price is here to stay and they will get to attend more frequently.

Another change that I noticed was that Al-Shabab’s Polish midfielder Grzegorz Krychowrak had dropped back from midfield to central defence. He’s one of the players that I keep an eye on, mainly because he’s readily identifiable, but also because I saw him play for Lokomotiv Moscow when I was living in Russia. He did ok in a deeper role, although as a defensive midfielder he would often slip back into defence as cover anyway.

Al-Shabab took the lead twenty minutes in, with a shot drilled in low from the edge of the box. They had a couple of other good chances in the first half that would have killed the visitors off including one that hit the underside of the bar, but they didn’t take them.

The crowd seemed lively enough to me, but someone clearly wasn’t satisfied and there was a quick burst of fake cheering played through the speaker system. I remember Mark Page doing it during one of the Boro’s European games and thought it was cringeworthy then. If only that were the worst of his crimes.

The clinching second goal came ten minutes into the second half and the win took Al-Shabab three points clear of Al-Nassr and Al-Ittihad at the top of the table, albeit having played three games more than both their rivals. It’s promising to be a decent battle for the title and maybe the reduced prices will get a few more fans in to see it.

Real Avila v Unami Club Polideportivo, Sunday 5th February 2023, 6pm

February 25, 2023

The second game of our trip was in Avila itself and so I was able to walk to the match from our apartment next to the cathedral in the town centre. We’d previously walked the city wall, both on the outside and where allowed, along the top. It was described as medieval, but I doubt much of it was there even a hundred years ago. Still, it looked good, particularly in the dark when lit up.

The route to the Estadio Adolfo Suarez took me though the stone entrance arch and then down to the part of town that would presumably have been left exposed whenever the place was attacked. I passed closed shops and some low-level housing blocks. Not much of it looked worth ransacking.

It wasn’t clear where the entrance to the ground was and there weren’t many fans heading to the match. I ended up walking three-quarters of the way around the ground before I found the spot where people were going in and a hole in the wall that served as a ticket office.

My ticket was ten euros and it made a welcome change to be able to pay in cash and not to have to download an App. I’d read online that Real Avila sell season tickets for a hundred euros with roughly half-price concessions for pensioners, under twenty-fives and the unemployed. Well done, that club. And well done to the lady in the ticket office for not assuming that I’m of the age where I qualify for a senior discount.

Just inside the gate was a bloke raffling a pig’s leg. There’s a time when I’d have been keen to get involved but Jen was already close to her luggage weight limit and with us being outside the EU I think that it’s now prohibited to take meat products into the UK from Spain. It would have been little use to me either, as I was heading back to a country that doesn’t look favourably on the importation of pork.

The game was in the Tercera division, which up until recently was the fourth tier, but after the latest reorganization is now the fifth. Real Avila went into the game in third place, no doubt with ambitions of moving beyond the Tercera for the first time in their history. Opponents Unami were propping up the sixteen-team division.

The Estadio Adolfo Suarez dates back to 1976 and looks like nothing has been spent on maintenance since. There’s one big covered stand, which is where I sat, and an abandoned open stand opposite. A cycle racetrack runs around two thirds of the ground but had enough pot holes to be more of a BMX obstacle course than anything suitable for racing. The pitch was behind the type of fence that you might use to keep someone from accessing a building site and a handful of people gave up the option of sitting in the main stand to loiter pitch side and watch through the mesh. The stadium capacity was given as six thousand but I doubt very much that’s the case these days.

Real Avila were in a red and navy combo with Unami in white. Not a lot happened in the opening stages which is just as well as few people seemed to be paying any attention to events taking place on the pitch. There was a constant low-level conversational hum which was clearly friends catching up with each other and talking about whatever they had got up to in the past fortnight.

The noise levels increased twenty minutes in when half a dozen ultras rocked up with flags and a loudhailer. They took up positions at the edge of the stand and had me wishing that I’d selected a seat much further away than I was.

Avila broke the deadlock a few minutes from half-time when a player chased a through ball and got there a fraction of a second before the keeper did. He managed to pop it over the goalie’s head with just the right amount of pace on it to drop down before it reached the goal and beat the despairing lunge of a defender who did his best to get a boot to it.

Unami should have levelled in added time when one of their strikers hit the bar from three yards out. He tried to put more on it than it needed and if he had just let it ricochet off his outstretched leg then it would probably have been sufficient to make it one-each.

At half time I had a wander about and caught a glimpse inside the room where the ultras kept their flags. It was graffitied with swastikas and mentions of Hitler. Bizarrely, the outside was decorated with a painting of Andy Capp.

I took a closer look at the occupants in the second half and saw that one of them was waving a Cross of Burgundy flag, which an online search revealed is popular with the far-right. It’s shameful that Real Avila tolerate the presence of neo-Nazis at their ground and something that should have no place at football or anywhere else for that matter.

Any sympathies that I might have had for the hosts went out of the window at this point and I found myself rooting for Unami. Whilst you rarely know the politics of those around you in a crowd, it’s still unsettling to see fascists out in the open at the match. Avila had a ‘goal’ disallowed five minutes from time to my delight and then an Unami block on the line brought a further smile to my face. Sadly, the visitors couldn’t nick the point that would have pissed off the home supporters and sent me back into town with a spring in my step.

CD Leganes v Sporting Gijon, Saturday 4th February 2023, 4.15pm

February 21, 2023

Jen and I like to get to Spain fairly frequently and this trip was another one based around flying into Madrid. I arrived early morning from the Middle East with Jen having spent the previous night at an airport hotel. Our plan was to stay three nights in Avila and then head back to Madrid for an evening out prior to catching our return flights the following day.

First up was some hiking. We broke the journey to Avila at the Fuenfria valley and walked up into the hills. There was still snow on the ground and as we gained height, I regretted not having any of those spikey things with me to slip over my boots. We didn’t see much in the way of wildlife, a couple of those big soary-type birds and a dog in the car park that might have been half-bear, but it was good to get out into the hills.

We’ve taken a similar approach in the past where we pick up a hire car in Madrid and motor out of the city for an hour or so to places like Toledo or Segovia. Avila was just as good, with a medieval wall around the town and sufficient bars and restaurants to meet the needs of someone who hadn’t had a drink for the previous six weeks.

As you might have expected, I’d checked out the nearby fixtures and Real Avila had a game on the Sunday. There were a few options for Saturday, and I picked a game at Leganes mainly on the basis that an afternoon kick-off wouldn’t impact upon the evening activities. I was also influenced by Leganes having an ex-Boro player turning out for them. Or at least they usually do. Ken Omeruo, a long-term loanee under Mogga and Karanka, is a regular for Leganes these days, but, as is often the way, picked up an injury after I’d booked the tickets.

I took the scenic route from Avila and it was an enjoyable drive to the outskirts of Madrid. We left the car in a Decathlon car park five minutes’ walk from the Estadio Municipal de Butarque and headed around to the south stand.

The tickets had cost thirty euros each and we were able to have them scanned directly from my phone at the entrance gate. Our seats were behind one of the goals in an open section. There was just the one covered stand and the twelve thousand capacity looks to be about right for a fairly unfashionable Madrid team in the second tier.

There was a small section of Sporting Gijon fans in the corner to the side of our section. This was supplemented by a few more fans on the other side of the fence and then the odd one or two dotted about near us. The doesn’t seem to be any real rivalry between the clubs, or if there is, it didn’t extend to any animosity between the supporters.

Oddly, the floodlights were on long before kick-off, despite the bright sunshine. Maybe there are tighter restrictions on utility company profits in Spain. Highlight of the first half was the visit of the churros bloke. He wandered around the stand selling three churros with a cup of chocolate dip for three and a half euros.

Leganes went a goal up inside three minutes with a shot from the edge of the box that sneaked through a crowd of players and ended up in the net. They were well on top at that stage and could easily have put the game out of Gijon’s reach if they had taken one or two of the chances that they created. The momentum changed ten minutes before the break though when a yellow card was changed to a red after a VAR intervention and the home side found themselves a man down.

As the second half went on, the visitors grew in confidence and looked likely to take something from the game. Or at least they did until the ref evened up the numbers with a few minutes to go. Every time there was a Gijon foul, and sometimes when there wasn’t, the Leganes players had been agitating for cards. It finally paid off with a red in the closing stages.

With the numbers down to ten a side Leganes were able to see it out and take the points. We took a more direct route back to Avila for a prompt start on the tapas and rioja.

Al-Draih v Al-Sadd, Friday 27th January 2023, 3.35pm

February 20, 2023

With the exception of the one age-group game, all of my fixtures in Saudi Arabia so far have been between top-tier Saudi Pro-League sides or else Super Cup games featuring foreign clubs. I’ve been using the Goalzz website to try and find something a little further down their pyramid and it threw up a game in the Second Division, which is actually the third tier.

The game was listed as being at the Prince Faisel bin Fahd Stadium near to where I’m staying and whilst I’d have preferred to tick off a new ground, I was happy enough with the prospect of seeing a game that needed just a ten-minute walk to get there.

I’d expected the fixture to take place on the practice pitch where I’d seen an Under-17 match a week earlier, but there was nothing going on there. I continued around the perimeter to the main entrance and, after nodding confidently at the security guard, made my way inside. He called me back almost immediately and asked where I was going. He knew nothing about a football game, but with it being third tier I hadn’t really expected that he would.

There was another fella there too, sat in his car, and the guard mentioned that he was also there for a non-existent football fixture. By this time I was starting to grasp that there really wasn’t anything going on at the stadium and it looked as if I was in for a quiet afternoon.

Fortunately, the bloke in the car had an inkling as to what had happened and he confirmed that the game was at a different location to the one that Goalzz had advised. With the security guard translating, we established that the distance was too far to walk and that I should hop in to the car.

We set off for the new location with the language barrier limiting our conversation to exchanging our nationalities and confirming that we both thought that football was good. Every now and then he would make a call and after some coaching from whoever he was speaking to in Arabic, he would tell me in English that we would soon be at the ground.

Twenty minutes and around twenty kilometres later we spotted the floodlights and he pulled into the car park of the Al-Diriyah Sporting Club. There weren’t any spaces close to the entrance gate and so my new Saudi friend temporarily stopped right outside the entrance to let me out before finding somewhere to leave the car. I gestured that I’d see him inside and left him to it. That was the last that I saw of him.

All I can conclude is that between them, he and the security guard had decided that I should see the game at the correct stadium and he had volunteered to drive me there. Quite why he didn’t want to see it himself, I’ve no idea. It was an incredibly generous action. If I’d realized that was what he was doing I’d have thanked him a lot more profusely than I did and offered him some petrol money. I’ve found the Saudi people that I’ve met so far to be largely very kind and helpful. I’m not sure many people would drive what may have been a forty-kilometre round trip to help a stranger who didn’t even speak his language.

Once inside I sat down on a raised area along the side of the pitch. It seemed as if I was in the section reserved for visitors Al-Sadd and in addition to a handful of fans at least two of their coaching staff were in there, perhaps as an overspill from the bench.

Home side Al-Draih were in maroon, with Al-Sadd in a grey kit. Whilst I’d missed the first twenty-five minutes, I hadn’t missed any goals. Nobody came close to breaking the deadlock in the remainder of the first half and it was still goalless at the break.

At half-time I went to look for the toilets. I try to be fairly careful where I wander into over here as I don’t want to disrupt anyone praying and it’s not always easy to initially spot the difference between the prayer rooms and the toilets. I found the right place though and in the absence of any urinals headed into one of the cubicles.

A lot of the toilets have bowls but this one was a more traditional hole in the ground. As I was only having a slash I was fine with that. I wouldn’t want to use one for a crap though other than in emergencies as I’m not really supple enough for squatting these days. I was mid-flow before I noticed the overhead shower and the shampoo bottle in the corner. Bugger. I was pissing in a shower. I must admit it is something that I may have done before, but it’s the first time I’ve done it fully clothed. If anyone realized what I was up to they were polite enough not to mention it.

In the second half I moved around a bit, firstly to the three steps of terracing behind one of the goals. The terracing ran around three sides of the ground, with the other side having the section from which I’d watched in the first half. That side also had an equivalent section for the home fans and a posh covered stand in the middle for people who no doubt rarely piss in the shower.

I spent a short time in with the Al-Draih fans but their drums and chanting through a microphone and amp soon had me headed back to the relative calm of the away section.

Not a great deal happened on the pitch until ten minutes from time when a home corner was acrobatically turned in at the near post. That lead to some top-level timewasting from Al-Draih, particularly from their goalie and trainer who jogged at slower than walking pace whenever he was called upon.

The situation infuriated the Al-Sadd bench, who took it in turns to berate the officials as if they had a rota. The players were little better with lots of dissent and some manhandling of the ref. There was just the one goal in it at the end and the visitors were still objecting as I headed out to look for a taxi to take me back into town.

Al-Fayha v Al-Hilal, Thursday 26th January 2023, 6pm

February 19, 2023

These Al-Hilal home games at the Prince Faisel bin Fahd Stadium are coming around every few days, or at least they would be if this really was a home game. The fixture was a semi-final of the Saudi Super Cup and played at Al-Hilal’s home ground, but with them designated the away team.

That didn’t seem to make a lot of difference to anything apart from my plan to sit in what is normally a virtually empty section of the ground with it resulting in me being in with around three hundred Al-Fayha fans.

My Category Three ticket had set me back twenty-five riyals, which is about six quid. A bargain, apart from having to stand in a section full of people making a racket. The stewards weren’t keen on anyone breaking ranks, but I waited until one was otherwise occupied and moved thirty yards to the right to an empty section beyond the area that he was responsible for. If he was going to make me move back, he’d have to come and get me, and he didn’t care sufficiently to do that.

My new section was below what looked like a commentary box and the overhang came in very useful when light drizzle started to fall. The Al-Fayha fans to my left kept up their high tempo support despite the change in weather and were rewarded twenty minutes in when their team scored on the break.

Al-Hilal had a chance to hit back a few minutes later when the Polish guy who had reffed the World Cup Final and who was guesting in this competition gave them a penalty. Just as the fashion was in Qatar, the keeper did his best to disrupt proceedings and it may well have worked, with the spot-kick hitting the post.

The rain had stopped by half-time and with the top-tier of the open stand to my left beckoning I switched sections. A few of the Al-Fayha fans had the same idea, but anyone wearing orange colours was turned away. I’m of the age where I’m rarely suspected of doing anything that I shouldn’t and I’ve learned that a confident manner is generally sufficient to avoid any scrutiny.

I’d selected the upper tier as that was also somewhere that I’d not been in before. It filled up as the second half got underway with six young women arriving and sitting in the row in front of me. It looks as if any gender segregation is a thing of the past here and it’s good to see lots of women coming to the game. I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen six women attending a match at the Boro as a group.

Al-Hilal had their chances in the second half including two close range misses that should have been put away. They couldn’t find the net though and it was Al-Fayha that went through to the final. Al-Hilal were booed off the field, which I thought was a little harsh, as there was clearly no lack of effort on their part. As I walked past the end of the ground where I’d spent the first half I could hear the Al-Fayha fans celebrating long after everyone else had left.