River Plate v Kashima Antlers, Saturday 22nd December 2018, 5.30pm

There are no direct flights from Malaysia to the north-east of England, so when I travel back to the UK I’ve got to break the journey somewhere. Usually I change planes in London or Amsterdam, but for my Christmas trip home I went via Abu Dhabi. The UAE Is not somewhere that has ever appealed to me as somewhere to live and as such I’ve knocked back any number of enquiries for jobs in the region over the years. This time though the final of the FIFA Club World Club Cup was taking place at a time that fitted in with the flights and that’s as good as reason as I’m ever likely to have for paying the place a visit.

The logistics were very easy and a forty quid online ticket from FIFA covered both the final and the third place play-off that took place as a double-header. We were only staying for a couple of nights and so we didn’t need a visa, whilst our hotel was just across from the Zayed Sports City stadium. It was also only about ten minutes in a taxi from the Sheikh Zayed mosque, which is just as well as my original plan for whiling away my time at a sanctuary for injured falcons didn’t come off.

I’m not really a fan of big modern buildings but I was happy to wander around the enormous mosque mainly to look at the tiling. I’m renovating a house and in my latest manifestation of geekiness have developed an unhealthy interest in reclaimed Victorian ceramics. It took a bit of effort to get in though. Not so much for me, but Jen was required to dress up as Obi Wan Kenobi with a shawl and a head scarf. My time and money-saving suggestions of a tea towel or a cardboard box with eye holes were dismissed as grossly disrespectful and she chose to buy the necessary gear from a department store that no doubt did very well out of improperly dressed tourists.

There were lots of River Plate fans wandering around the mosque in the hours before their third-place play-off game. No doubt they too were marveling at the elaborate encaustics whilst cursing the limited opening hours of the hawk hospital.

Later that day Jen and I made our way over to the stadium with plenty of time in hand. Just as well really as it was almost as much of an arse on getting in to the ground as it had been the mosque. I got away with a small, yet still prohibited, camera but had a pen no bigger than you’d find in a bookies confiscated. These posts struggle for accuracy at the best of times but my memory is so poor these days that if I can’t make a few notes then you can’t be confident that anything I write here is in any way accurate.

Still, this one was easier than most to check later. It was the third-place play-off featuring River Plate, fresh from their much disrupted Copa Libertadores triumph against Boca Juniors, taking on the champions of Asia, Kashima Antlers.

Iconic is a much over-used word but I think that the River Plate kit of white shirt, diagonal red stripe and black shorts counts. Kashima were in a somewhat less iconic red combo. There were at least six sections of River Plate fans, maybe five or six thousand or so of them, compared to a small but vocal section of a hundred or so Japanese fans just to my left. A few local fans, some supporting Abu Dhabi’s own Al-Ain, others wearing the global uniform of a Real Madrid shirt, made up the numbers in a crowd that was officially announced as being seventeen thousand.

The River Plate fans made an incredible racket all the way through despite the game meaning little to them. I mean, you win the Copa Libertadores against your greatest rivals and before you have the chance for a triumphant home-coming you have to pitch up at a Micky Mouse tournament only to switch off and lose your first game to the team that qualified by being local.

Play was fairly even in the early stages up until former Jeonbuk Motors goalie Kwoun Sun-tae picked up an injury and had to be subbed. The replacement keeper’s first job was to pick the ball out of the net as River Plate went one up from a corner. Strangely their fans barely celebrated. The goal brought the Asian Champions out of their shell and made for a much more open game but the Argentinians went two up late on and then added a couple more in the final moments to rub it in. It’s a shame that River Plate hadn’t turned up in their semi-final as I’d have liked to have seen them take on Real Madrid for the title.

 

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