Al-Shabab v Al-Taawon, Saturday 27th May 2023, 9pm

May 30, 2023

This wasn’t the game that I’d hoped to be at on this date. I’d wanted to be at Wembley to see the Boro in the play-off final. Whilst I didn’t want to tempt fate prior to the play-off semi, I also didn’t want to discover too late that everything was sold out and so I’d booked flights, a hotel and a train ticket for Jen. Sadly, football doesn’t always work out as you want.

Instead, I was back at the Prince Faisal stadium for fourth placed Al-Shabab against fifth placed Al-Taawon. For a change I thought I’d go into the VIP section. At two hundred riyals a ticket it was twenty times more expensive than my usual seat, which is just the other side of a perspex screen. Two hundred riyals is forty-three quid and so it’s not overly expensive by football standards these days. It’s certainly cheaper than the Wembley ticket would have been.

The security guard at the entrance gate seemed a little surprised that I was meant to be there, as did the bloke checking the tickets at the main entrance. Perhaps I just don’t look ‘corporate’. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or not.

Once inside I was given a silver wristband and an Arabic coffee. One sip was enough to confirm that there’s a good reason why Starbucks don’t sell that stuff. The fella next to coffee guy was holding a container of hot coals and he wafted the smoke at me. Cheers Matey.

That was it for hospitality add-ons apart from frequent offers of tea and water during the game. I’d half expected a buffet or at least someone with a tray of chocolates, but maybe you needed a gold wristband for that sort of thing. As kick-off was only ten minutes away, I followed someone up some stairs to the main stand.

My designated padded seat was close to the half-way line and behind the dugouts. There were some tv screens showing the match on a ten second delay. That actually worked quite well, giving you the opportunity to check how much contact actually occurred whenever someone went down as if shot.

If I’d been a real VIP then I could have sat on one of the settees at the front. They were occupied by people who everyone seemed to know and whenever someone new turned up we had an elaborate fake kissing routine where the two blokes would touch cheeks three times. That’s face cheeks, in case you were wondering. They would then pause slightly before going back for one more.

Al-Taawon went a goal up about half an hour in and at which point I realized that almost everyone in my section was an away fan. At half-time I wandered inside in the forlorn hope that it might be a bit like the old Ayresome Park Hundred Club and that there would be a table with plates of quartered pork pies. No such luck though.

In the second half Al-Taawon rattled in two more goals for a three-nil win. I don’t think the experience was worth twenty times the usual price, particularly as in my usual section I’d have been able to buy a Kit-kat. It’s always good to try something different though.

Al-Riyadh v Al-Shoalah, Tuesday 23rd May 2023, 9pm

May 26, 2023

I’d had my eye on a visit to the Prince Turki bin Abdul Aziz stadium for quite some time. It’s the home of Al-Riyadh who play in the second tier Yelo League. Unfortunately, a lot of their games are scheduled for weekdays and often with a kick-off sufficiently early to avoid the need for floodlights.

This fixture was their final home game of the season and therefore my last chance until August or September. I had been to the ground before, to watch an U17 game on the adjoining practice pitch, but this was my first visit to see a match at their proper stadium.

It had been a good season for Al-Riyadh as they had built on their promotion from the third tier the previous season and clinched a place in the top-tier Saudi Pro-League at the first attempt. It was made a little easier for them by the expansion of the higher division from sixteen to eighteen teams, meaning that fourth place was sufficient to go up. The year had gone less well for visitors Al-Shoalah, who were adrift at the bottom of the table and would be plying their trade in the third tier next season.

Prince Turki bi Abdul Aziz stadium is over in the south-west of Riyadh and twenty-two kilometres from where I’m staying. It’s mainly on roads with a decent flow of traffic though and I got there after a thirty-minute taxi ride and with an hour to spare to kick-off.

The ground is supposed to hold fifteen thousand spectators, although that looked a bit optimistic to me. The capacity had certainly been reduced by the placing of chairs in one of the stands. They looked as if they had been removed from a function room and then covered to protect them from dust.

I was directed to the far end of the covered stand. Apparently, the centre section which had tables and flowers was for VIPs and then the next blocks were reserved for not quite so important people, but still more important than plebs like me. It all seemed a lot of effort for a game with free admission and an eventual crowd of no more than three hundred people. Perhaps they only had two hundred and fifty chairs.

I watched quite a few people arguing with the stewards who appeared to have nightclub bouncer-like powers in arbitrarily deciding if your face fitted or not. I wondered whether putting my black socks over my trainers might have got me in.

Maybe the stewarding was intended to keep out the small group of ultras that had congregated to my left. They provided support throughout the game, although I’d have preferred that they did it without using a loudhailer. The older I get, the less tolerance I have for noise.

At half time I moved across to the stand opposite. It was certainly quieter, but what I gained by distancing myself from the loudhailer guy was offset by the plague of locusts. Did you know that the collective noun for locusts was a plague? Me neither, but somewhat appropriate, I think.

As I entered the uncovered stand one of them kept bashing itself against my head. Only one winner there really. There were hundreds of them on the terracing, some just sat there, others that had congregated near the stairwells a little worse for their encounters with the soles of people’s shoes.

And the match? Well, Al-Riyadh went a goal up mid-way through the first half when a freekick was saved and the rebound nodded in. Al- Shoalah equalized before half time with a shot from inside the box that was perfectly placed just inside the post.

I was expecting Al-Riyadh to prevail in the second half, but I think they might just have been celebrating their promotion a little too thoroughly, if that’s possible over here, and they ran out of steam. Two goals in the last fifteen minutes clinched the win for relegated Al-Shoalah to put a dampener on the promotion party.

Al-Shabab Reserves v Al-Wehda Reserves, Friday 19th May 2023, 4pm

May 25, 2023

I’m a little wary these days when I see age-group or lower tier games listed at the Prince Faisal stadium as I’ve turned up at least twice only to find that the match was taking place elsewhere. This one was a reserve fixture featuring the two sides whose first teams had clashed at the ground the previous evening and as it had been a late addition to the website match listings, I had high hopes that the venue might be correct.

Unfortunately, I had stuff to do and so wouldn’t be able to see the first half, but I thought that if I caught the last half-hour or so it would be worth the fifteen-minute walk from where I stay.

Arriving at the stadium I quickly checked out the practice pitch where there was nothing going on. Moving further around I was able to see into the main stadium and there was actually a game going on. Excellent. I continued around until I reached the main entrance which was open to let people into the sports centre.

All of the gates to the football ground looked to be shut and each one had a policeman loitering. I headed around to the right where there’s an entrance big enough to allow an ambulance in. With the pitch in sight a steward called a halt to my progress and after a short conversation it was established that spectators were strictly prohibited. As was taking photographs. Hmm.

Still, I like a challenge and so instead of returning from where I’d came, I continued around the perimeter until I reached the big open stand that runs along one side of the pitch. I walked purposefully as if I had a right to be there and was ignored by the first steward I saw. Once out of his line of sight, I tried a closed gate. It opened, and I was into the stand.

The sun was getting low and so it made watching and taking photos difficult from that section. I came back out and moved further along towards a fenced off area where there was a steward with his back to me. I dodged up a stairway, taking the six flights of steps that brings you out on the upper tier. This got me past the fence and the steward and allowed me to enter the stadium far enough along not to have to look into the sun.

The scoreboard revealed that Al-Shabab were four-nil up and a quick look around confirmed that I was the only spectator. I watched the action for a couple of minutes and then, keen to avoid any police attention, made my way back down and looked for an open exit. Everything was shut other than the gate that I’d came in by and to get to that I had to complete my lap of the stadium interior, again with a purposeful stride. I exchanged nods and a smile with security on the way out and left them to it.

Al-Shabab v Al-Wehda, Thursday 18th May 2023, 7pm

May 24, 2023

I ended up buying two tickets for this game on account of the weather. Initially I’d intended to sit in the big open stand, but a day of downpours persuaded me to think again, and I bought another one, this time for the covered area in the stand opposite. Tickets are only two quid a pop so it’s not expensive to keep your options open.

There was a slight drizzle as I took the short walk to the Prince Faisal ground and so I veered right instead of left and headed for the covered section.

It was another small crowd of under a thousand, although there was a reasonable turnout amongst the singers in the stand opposite. Al-Shabab, in white, had little to play for whilst visitors Al-Wehda, in red, were just beyond the relegation spots and clearly intent on taking something from the game.

They went ahead after twelve minutes and frequently threatened with their pace when running at the Al-Shabab defence.

The home side had the ball in the net early in the second half, but neither set of players seemed convinced that it would stand. They loitered at the centre circle for three minutes whilst the VAR did his stuff, eventually sending the ref over to the screen to have a look for himself. That meant another two minutes delay whilst he stared at the screen with his head at the angle more commonly seen when a dog watches the telly. As expected, the effort was disallowed.

Al-Shabab had other chances, including one attack that needed a triple point-blank save from the Al-Wehda keeper, but didn’t create anything reflective of the gap between the teams. In the end the single early goal was enough to take the points and put a bit of distance between Al-Wehda and their relegation rivals.

Al-Hilal v Al-Ittihad, Tuesday 16th May 2023, 9.30pm

May 23, 2023

The biggest game in Saudi football is between Al-Hilal and Al-Ittihad. They are the two most successful clubs in the country by a long way and as the biggest teams in the two biggest cities, Riyadh and Jeddah, it’s a classic rivalry. It’s known as El Clasico over here, although Madrid and Barcelona may well raise a collective eyebrow at the borrowing of the term.

As befits the occasion ticket prices had risen from the usual twenty riyals for Al-Hilal home games to a still reasonable, I thought, ninety-two riyals.

I arrived with an hour to go to kick-off and it was busy outside. The usual scarf and flag sellers were out in force and most had supplemented their usual stock with some Al-Ittihad gear.

Whilst Al-Hilal don’t have much to play for in the league, Al-Ittihad were five points clear of Al-Nassr with just four games left. An away win would just about settle things. The rivalry was enough to guarantee a competitive game though and with Al-Hilal fresh from their Kings Cup victory it was Cup winners v Champions-elect.

Once inside I bought myself a shawarma and made my way up the six flights of stairs to the top tier. The away fans had around a quarter of the ground, and it seemed that most of them had brought a flag. Others had sneaked flares in with them, an impressive achievement given the body searches at the entrance gates, and we were treated to a display in the moments before kick-off.

Al-Ittihad settled first and seemed to have far too much space in the final third. They quickly went a goal up and then added a second on the half-hour.

Al-Hilal got a foothold after a VAR awarded goal where the keeper tried to push out a cross that ended up at his near post. The fans around me were adamant that it had crossed the line, but the players didn’t make much of a fuss. The action went on for a good three minutes before the ref received a whisper in his earpiece and belatedly pointed to the centre spot.

Surely a goal-line issue has to be settled quicker than that? There was an appeal for a pen just before half-time that was turned down but when the ref blew for the break everyone was wondering what would happen if three minutes later the VAR decided that it actually was a spot-kick? Do they come back out again? Or take it at the start of the second half?

In the second half Al-Hilal had the best of the possession and pushed for an equalizer, which finally came deep into added time when a header was saved but the rebound tucked away. The draw, plus Al-Nassr’s win, brought the title race back to life with just three points separating the top two and with three games to play.

Al-Hilal U19 v Al-Ohod U19, Thursday 11th May 2023, 8.45pm

May 22, 2023

An U19 fixture on the other side of town wouldn’t necessarily be something that I’d be overly interested in attending, particularly when it wasn’t scheduled to finish until well after ten-thirty. However, it was a chance to tick off another ground, my ninth in Saudi Arabia and all in Riyadh. That was enough to make me put in the effort and I took a taxi to the King Salman bin Abdul Aziz stadium. I’m not sure how widely used the name is and it might be more commonly known simply as the Al-Hilal stadium. Google Maps and Waze weren’t convinced by any of the names that I tried, and I ended up navigating by using the mosque next door as the destination.

On arrival I made a lap of the ground and nearly wandered into a basketball training session via the main entrance, but a group of young lads kindly directed me further around to the gate for the football.

It has been a while since the stadium was the regular home of the Al-Hilal first team. They currently turn out at the Prince Faisal stadium after having been booted out of Mrsool Park when Al-Nassr offered the landlord more cash. If they sign Messi, I suspect that they will be on the move again, to the sixty thousand capacity King Fahd ground.

This ground is ideal for youth games though, with a five thousand capacity and two stands, one covered, the other open. There’s no seating at either end behind the goals. I was in the covered stand, towards the back. If I’d been bothered, I could have removed a cover from one of the armchairs and sat in a bit of comfort, but I was happy enough with one of the tip-up seats.

I was soon joined by an old Egyptian bloke who showed me some clips on his phone of his son, Kareem, a striker for Al-Hilal. He was understandably very proud of his boy and from some of the goals on his highlight reel he looked a decent prospect. Kareem started up front, although he often dropped back into midfield to link up the play.

Visitors Al-Ohod took the lead after about half an hour and I was impressed by Kareem’s Dad applauding the goal. It wasn’t long before Al-Hilal equalized with a deflected shot and the teams went off at half-time level at one-each.

The game came to life a few minutes into the second half when the Al-Hilal left back picked up a second yellow card. Much to his Dad’s disappointment, it meant an early finish for Kareem too as he was sacrificed for a defender. On the hour Al-Hilal went down to nine men after another sending off. Their bench was apoplectic with the officials.

Al-Hilal still went for the winner despite being two players down. Their numerical disadvantage was soon halved as a last-ditch tackle from Al-Ohod on the edge of the box resulted in a straight DOGSO red. The Al-Hilal bench were happy enough over the sending-off but were adamant that it should have been a pen.

The home side continued to push for a second goal and with seven minutes of added time had their chances, including hitting the bar from a thirty-yard free kick. With nine additional minutes already gone there was another tackle in the Al-Ohod box. This time the penalty was given, and it was the turn of the visitors to berate the ref. It took four minutes for the situation to calm down and that’s without VAR.

The pen was dispatched, and the entire Al-Hilal staff and subs celebrated on the pitch as if they had won the World Cup. Within a few seconds of the eventual restart the ref finally brought the evening to an end.

Al-Nassr v Al-Khaleej, Monday 8th May 2023, 7pm

May 21, 2023

So many of the games here seem to start around 9pm. That’s understandable given the heat, but it makes for a very late evening, particularly when there’s a post-match taxi ride involved. This one had a much more sociable kick-off time of 7pm, although the trade-off was the forty degree heat. The initial ticket frenzy that had greeted Ronaldo’s arrival had long gone and so despite some rush hour traffic I was able to get to the Mrsool Stadium in about forty minutes.

My season ticket entitles me to enter by a gate without a body scanner and avoid being searched. As you can buy diet coke inside the stadium it’s a notional benefit only, but I like the idea that if you have a season ticket you can be trusted not to bring anything untoward into the ground with you.

Mind you, I don’t obey all of the stadium rules. I was walking around the concourse and noticed that one of the stairways had no stewards checking tickets. I’m always interested in watching games from different viewpoints and so I made my way in and found a seat in a fairly empty section. I was at the other end of the ground to where I normally sit, high up behind a small group of around sixty away fans who had taken up positions down at the front.

The fixture was more meaningful than some I’ve been to recently. League leaders Al-Ittihad had lost their last match and so a home win would allow Al-Nassr to draw level with them at the top, albeit having played a game more. Visitors Al-Khaleej were third from bottom with just two points separating them from the two-team relegation zone. Even a point would be a great outcome for them.

Al-Khaleej made an early impact, clattering Ronaldo in the opening moments and then going a goal up after only three minutes.

Al-Nassr equalized on the quarter hour but rarely played with any conviction. Al-Khaleej’s timewasting stopped them getting into any sort of rhythm and Ronaldo got more and more pissed off as the evening went on. He had a couple of efforts disallowed and even nine minutes of added time at the end wasn’t sufficient for them to nick a win.

The away fans in front of me celebrated their point, which may very well be vital come the end of the season, whilst the two points dropped meant that most Al-Nassr fans were on their way home long before the players had left the pitch.

Al-Shabab v Al-Fateh, Wednesday 3rd May 2023, 9.30pm

May 20, 2023

This was a fairly meaningless end of season fixture. Al-Shabab were in third place in the table but nine points behind leaders Al-Ittihad and the games remaining were quickly running out. There’s only one Champions League spot available, although I suppose if second placed Al-Nassr imploded then Al-Shabab might qualify for the next level down Asian competition. Visitors Al-Fateh were fifth but well adrift from the top four.

The walk to the Prince Faisal bin Fahd ground took me around the perimeter of King Abdullah Park. There’s a significant cat population in the area and they are well fed by the locals. I saw one woman dragging what looked like a fifteen-kilogram bag of food about with her. There are always plenty of kittens too and with no pressure on any of them to catch their own dinner I imagine a far larger proportion of them reach adulthood than in other areas of town.

I passed the ticket office on the way around to my entrance gate and noticed that it was open. There were three fellas inside and they had printed tickets on A4 paper presumably prepared ready for people who were struggling to buy online.

I’d already sorted my seat and for a very reasonably ten riyals, which equated to two pounds and eighteen pence. I was in Block 201 which was formerly the family area and is in the covered stand, right next to the VIP section. There was a Perspex screen to make sure that I didn’t stray into the posh bit. Despite the bargain ticket price there was a very small crowd, probably in the hundreds rather than thousands. I didn’t see any away fans but it’s a three-hour drive from Al-Hasa and with such a late kick-off I doubt many would have fancied that sort of round trip.

I hadn’t been too sure about attending either. Partly because it wouldn’t finish until getting on for half past eleven, but mainly because I’ve just started watching the Get Back documentary. It’s an astonishingly good piece of work and looks like it could have been filmed yesterday rather than fifty-odd years ago. I’d happily watch the full sixty hours of footage if it’s ever made available. In the end though I decided that I could eke it out and go to the match instead.

The game was half-paced with little urgency. Neither team put much venom into their shots or tackles and it had nil-nil written all over it. One decent effort was always likely to be enough and a well-taken Al-Shabab free-kick early in the second half was enough to seal the win.

Al-Hilal v Urawa Red Diamonds, Saturday 29th April 2023, 8pm

May 19, 2023

Whilst Al-Hilal have had a poor league campaign by their standards, they’ve done ok in the cups and have reached three finals. This game was the first leg of the Asian Champions League Final and in order to accommodate the demand for tickets the venue had been switched from the Prince Faisal bin Fahd stadium near to where I stay to the much larger King Fahd stadium twenty kilometres or so away.

In one way I was surprised by the demand. Most of the Al-Hilal games that I’ve attended this season have had crowds of around four thousand. It’s been a bit like Ayresome Park in that second Bobby Murdoch season. However, they are the most successful team in Saudi Arabia and so they will have a lot of fans who turn up once a year, no doubt proclaiming their absolute loyalty.

Perhaps some of my interest in the sudden increase in Al-Hilal fans attending games was because I’d struggled for a ticket, despite being one of the four thousand that regularly turned up this season at the Prince Faisal ground. I’d managed to get a last-minute ticket due to the helpfulness of three young lads at the Al-Nassr game the previous night who were able to find one that may have just been released from someone’s online basket.

As the ticket required the use of an animated QR code, linked to the ticket holder’s account, they also very kindly sent me a video of it as a screenshot wasn’t sufficient.

I was in the stadium with an hour to spare and it was just as well as it was already half-full. There were plenty of seats available lower down, but these required you to watch through a fence and with a running track between the stands and the pitch a view from high up is a better option. I took a seat in the very back row with some friendly Al-Hilal fans. They gave me a mint tea, some water and even a twix. I felt a bit guilty that I had nothing to offer in return other than a slagging off of Al-Nassr, which was very well received.

We were close to the away fans and they were magnificent, as Stevie Mac would say, with non-stop singing and flag waving. I reckon they must only be allowed to travel if they are prepared to put the effort in. Mind you, the home fans did well too, with a pre-match tifo display involving plastic bags. By the time everyone was in, the attendance had exceeded fifty thousand and people were sitting on the steps between sections.

Al-Hilal had the ball throughout most of the game with Urawa relying on counter-attacks. The pressure paid off early on and they went in front on the quarter hour. They should have made it two fifteen minutes later but the chance was squandered. Urawa equalized early in the second half after a sliding interception from a defender sent the ball past his own goalie and then back off the post, with the rebound tucked away.

That was it for goals, but we had some late drama when an Al-Hilal player was sent off for booting a bloke who had fouled him. Both teams had pretty much settled for a draw at that point anyway, leaving it all to play for in the second leg.

Al-Nassr v Al-Raed, Friday 28th April 2023, 9.30pm

May 18, 2023

After the trip to Europe I was back in the Middle East with another fixture involving Ronaldo’s team Al-Nassr. The assumption when he signed was that he would elevate the club to another level, but the reality has been that they’ve slipped from the top of the table to a position where the title is now out of their hands.

There was speculation in the media this week that Ronaldo might retire and take up an ambassadorial role with Real Madrid. I couldn’t see that happening whilst he still believes that he’s good enough to lead the line for them. I doubt the Al-Nassr chairman would shed too many tears if Ronaldo were to walk away from his contract though, as he was quoted saying that he’d only been ripped off twice in his life, firstly when he ordered three kebabs and only two were delivered and secondly, when he signed Ronaldo. I felt his pain. Nobody should ever be a kebab short.

I took a taxi to Mrsool stadium arriving a couple of hours early to avoid the jams. There’s decent wifi though so it wasn’t much of a hardship. The taxi driver was keen to wait for me coming out afterwards, four hours later, so either business is slow at the moment or else I’m paying too much.

I’d noticed quite a few Japanese fellas in the concourse, some of them wearing the shirts of Urawa Red Diamonds. They were presumably in town for the Asian Champions League Final the following day and had taken the opportunity to watch another game whilst here. I like that. I discussed Al-Hilal’s prospects in that game with a couple of blokes selling coffee and they were fairly bullish about the Saudi team’s chances. I wasn’t quite so sure as I’ve seen some poor performances from them over the season. Maybe they can lift their game when it matters.

I’d tried to get a ticket for that final, but it appeared to be sold out. However, there were three young lads sat in front of me and one of them mentioned that he was an Al-Hilal fan. He seemed to have buying privileges that I didn’t and so he bought me a ticket and transferred it via WhatsApp. Technology, eh. The only downside of the transaction was that whilst we were arsing about with the phones, I missed the opening goal. Ronaldo providing the perfect retort to his chairman five minutes into the game.

In a way though, I could see the chairman’s point. Ronaldo had a decent game but too many of his team-mates weren’t on the same wavelength and often didn’t anticipate what would have been a killer pass or notice until it was too late that he’d made the perfect run behind a defender. The three million quid a week spent on his wages would probably have been better spent paying six foreign players half a million quid each. You’d still pretty much get your pick of the Premier League for that sort of money, particularly as it’s tax-free.

Anyway, Al-Nassr added a second early on in the second half and then two more in stoppage time. Four-nil flattered them to a certain extent, but they deserved their victory.