Archive for January, 2023

AC Milan v Inter Milan, Wednesday 18th January 2023, 9pm

January 31, 2023

It must be Super Cup season as following on from the Spanish version the previous week the Milan teams were in town for their turn. It looks as if the Italian competition still maintains the traditional format of League Champions v Cup Winners although they are not averse to taking the fixture around the globe with previous matches having taken place in the US, China, Qatar and even Libya.

It was easy enough to get a ticket online for a game that didn’t sell out, although I thought that the 51,000 attendance in the 65,000 capacity King Fahd stadium was a decent turn-out.

With a crowd of that size it was busy outside and there were plenty of scarf and flag sellers. It was a chilly evening and so a scarf wouldn’t have gone amiss, but I was reluctant to wear the colours of a team that weren’t the Boro. I’ve done it occasionally; I remember buying an Egaleo scarf on the way into our UEFA Cup game in Athens and I bought a North Ferriby beanie last year at a game where the temperature felt sub-zero, but they’ve never seen the light of day again.

I gambled incorrectly on the way to my gate and walked almost a complete lap of the ground before finding my entrance for a section behind the goal. I was on the corner, in the Inter end. AC had what they had labelled ‘Curva Sud’ behind the opposite goal, but I’ve no idea if it really was the south.

Some of the fans actually seemed Italian whilst others just copied the gestures. If I’d had to express a preference for either of the teams, I’d probably have gone for Inter on the basis that they were Gianluca Festa’s club and I remember him turning out for them at the Riverside before we signed him. We’ve often had blue and black stripes as our away kit too, so that was also in their favour.

The bloke on the PA was fired up and in the manner of a sub-Buffer ring announcer, informed us that “Ladies and Gentlemen, you are part of the show”. We’d been given wristbands on the way in which I had assumed were to identify the section that we were in. They actually contained a flashing light that we were encouraged to wave whenever activated. Mine soon made its way to the floor.

Inter went one up after ten minutes, causing everyone around me to go apeshit. The ref headed over to the touchline for what I thought was a VAR check, but he was actually delivering the ball that the goal had been scored with to someone who put it in a Perspex box for people to have their photos taken with it. The modern game. Modern life.

The same thing happened after Inter’s second goal. The ball that merited saving for posterity was the one with which Inter added a third towards the end as Martinez scored a peach with the outside of his foot.

Confident that I’d get a taxi this time, I waited until the end and soon found a ride back into town. The driver was from Yemen and spoke little English. I tried to conduct a conversation of sorts with a mention of Prince Naseem, but he clearly was not a boxing aficionado.

Al-Hilal v Al-Adalah, Sunday 15th January 2023, 6pm

January 30, 2023

It’s great having two Saudi Pro League teams staging their fixtures at the Prince Faisel bin Fahd Stadium as less than twenty-four hours after watching Al-Shabab, I was back, in just about the same seat, for Al-Hilal’s game against Al-Adalah.

There are a lot more women and children at the Al-Hilal games and maybe that’s because it’s more likely that the whole family will come along when the tickets are thirty riyals each rather than two-hundred.

Something I have noticed at these games is that I’m the only fella with white hair. I don’t know if Arabs like to slap on some Just For Men or whether the fellas wearing the headgear are doing it to hide the grey. Maybe they just keep their old people sat quietly in the house. Whatever the reason, I haven’t yet seen anyone with a head of white hair like mine.

Al-Adalah had been given the end to my left for their fans, which was probably a little excessive given that only one fella had turned up to support them. It’s over three hundred kilometres to Al-Hasa, where they are based but I’d have thought that they must have had some fans working in the Riyadh area.

Al-Hilal started the game in fourth place, no doubt still rueing the two dropped points in their previous home game. A win would move them up to second whilst Al-Adalah are in the lower reaches of the table and not likely to be involved in anything meaningful on their own part.

I knew none of the players turning out for Al-Adalah, but I dare say that might change in time. Ighalo was missing for the hosts and as chance after chance went begging it was clear how important he was to the team.

We were an hour into the game before Al-Hilal finally went ahead from a VAR awarded penalty that was initially saved, then retaken and eventually blasted into the top corner. Al-Hilal added a second goal on the counter to make the points safe, although I’d thought that in their game against Damac on New Year’s Eve and they ballsed that one up.

Al-Adalah’s chances of a comeback faded further when they had a bloke sent off in the dying minutes for a second yellow. He got a generous round of applause as he left the pitch to the extent that he may have been a former Al-Hilal player. If so, he played his part as the home team held on to take the points and moved up to second from top.

Al-Shabab v Al-Nassr, Saturday 14th January 2023, 8.30pm

January 29, 2023

I always get a buzz when I see the floodlights for a ground, even more so when it’s a night match and I’m drawn in like a moth. I wasn’t the only one keen to get inside and there was a fifty yard queue along the wall leading to the main gate. Fortunately, I’d bought a ticket for the far end of the big stand and that meant I went in at the gate further around the stadium. There were no queues at all at that one.

I had the Al-Nassr fans to my left, probably about three hundred in total. That struck me as quite a poor turnout considering that they had sold twenty-two thousand tickets in under an hour for their upcoming home game featuring Ronaldo’s debut. Clearly a lot of those people are following the player and not the club.

I’ve noticed a few fellas here wearing what I presume are camel skin coats. The lack of seams suggests a larger animal than a sheep or goat and, given the location, camel seems plausible. They remind me of the afghan coat I had as a kid. I bought it via mail order from an advert in, I think, the NME around 1980 and a good ten years after the rest of the world had stopped wearing them. If it rained, it smelt like a wet dog making me wonder just what type of skins had been used to make it.

Al-Shabab were in all white and went into the game in third place, with Al-Nassr, in yellow and blue, top of the league. It’s tight at the top though and a two-goal win for Al-Shabab would have moved them into first place on goal difference. They had the better chances in the first half, but it was goalless at the break.

There wasn’t a great deal to excite the four and a half thousand strong crowd until the last ten minutes. An Al-Nassr player volleyed wide when it really was easier to score and in added time Al-Shabab had a header disallowed for offside.

Former Arsenal goalie David Ospina went down injured after the disallowed ‘goal’. I thought he was just trying to run down the clock as Al-Nassr had been doing for most of the game, but he’d busted his elbow.

The Al-Nassr sub goalie warmed up by booting the ball as far as he could rather than practicing his catching or doing any stretching. It turned out to be exactly what was required as he came on, wellied the free-kick up the field to restart the game and then walked off without touching the ball again as the ref blew for full-time. Mission accomplished for Al-Nassr who stayed at the top of the table in their final pre-Ronaldo game.

Green v Orange, Friday 13th January 2023, 4pm

January 28, 2023

I’m quite particular about what constitutes a game or a ground that I can add to my groundhopping total. It’s got to be a regulation size pitch and it must be an eleven a side game. Although if a team turned up one short, I’d allow that.

I used to insist that there were proper linesmen, but after watching Wearside League games and below where a sub ‘runs’ the line or a manager sticks the flag in his pocket, I’m a bit more relaxed about that rule these days.

Sometimes though I stumble across a game that I can’t justify counting no matter what and this was the case when out walking near to the King Abdullah park. There were goals, nets even, but no linos and it was just ten a side, although I couldn’t be certain that there hadn’t been a couple of red cards before I turned up. It’s more likely if it had been eleven a side at the start that the missing players had just gone home for their tea.

Best bit though was the way the pitch was marked. Instead of whatever that white stuff is that usually denotes the edges and penalty boxes, rope had been stretched out and pegged to the floor. It looked permanently fixed, or as permanent as rope can be until someone needs to tow their Lexus or lasso a camel.

There were three blokes watching from settees, which is pretty luxurious at any level. I’ve only seen seats like that once before at a game and that was for Sachin Tendulkar in the Owner’s area at a game in India. I’ve no idea if the teams had names, so I’ll just call them Green and Orange after their hi-viz vests. I hung about for a few minutes to watch El Fluorescentio but not a great deal happened and I thought I’d better clear off in case I was freaking them out.

Barcelona v Real Betis, Thursday 12th January 2023, 10pm

January 27, 2023

The Super Cup is the Spanish version of the English Community Shield, or the Charity Shield to those of us old enough to remember Keegan and Bremner picking up long bans for an on-field scrap and then flinging down their shirts as they trudged off. That’s probably about as seriously as anyone had ever treated the game in England until foreign managers pitched up in the Premier league and started claiming the Shield in their trophy counts.

Whilst the Spanish Super Cup previously followed the traditional format of the league champions playing the cup winners, it has expanded and now includes the runners up from each competition. I’m sure that the thinking behind that approach is that it increases the chances of Real Madrid and Barcelona being involved which is probably quite important when you are hawking the rights to stage the competition around the world. Morocco hosted the first Super Cup to take place outside of Spain, but for three of the last four years it has been held in Saudi Arabia.

The game that I selected to attend was the second semi-final and between Barcelona and Real Betis. I picked up a ticket online for ninety-three riyals which was less than half the price of an Al-Shabab game at the stadium near my hotel.

All of the Super Cup games were taking place at the King Fahd International Stadium in the north-east part of Riyadh. I flagged down a fake taxi driver who wouldn’t quote me a fare. He just said not to worry and then, as almost all the taxi drivers do here, chatted about cricket. They all seem to have a favourite English player and this fella raved about Moeen Ali. It took around half an hour to get to the ground and, once there, he still wouldn’t give me a price. I gave him a hundred riyals which he seemed happy enough with. Maybe I overpaid, but if not, he’ll have learned a valuable lesson to mention the price in advance next time.

My seat was in one of the corners. It was free-seating, but within your allocated block and the stewards did well in making sure that everyone sat where they were supposed to. Lots of the fans around me were wearing Barcelona shirts or waving scarves or flags. I didn’t see anyone supporting Betis, but there were a few people with Real Madrid shirts on favouring them by proxy.

Many of the Barcelona ‘fans’ joined in with the singing and just about the whole crowd, with the exception of a curmudgeonly Englishman, got to their feet for the Mexican waves.

I’d no idea whether Betis were at full strength, but Barcelona fielded a decent line-up. Cynically I wondered whether certain players were contractually obliged to make an appearance. If there were any stipulations, I’d have liked to have seen them extended to the kits as for some reason Barcelona were wearing red shorts and socks.

It was a competitive first half, with ter Stegen pulling off a couple of very good saves and Barcelona having one chalked off at the other end after a VAR review. Lewandowski finally managed to break the deadlock five minutes before the break and Barcelona went in at half-time a goal to the good.

I needed some smaller notes for the taxi on the way back, so made myself unpopular at a stall on the concourse by buying a KitKat with a forty quid note. As I pocketed my change I noticed a procession of entertainers ranging from a brass band to Messi lookalikes performing juggling tricks. I latched on to them and followed them through a gate to the side section for a different second half view from the main stand.

Betis equalized with around a quarter of an hour to go, sparking some gleeful celebrating from a bloke in a Real Madrid shirt. With the score level at full-time and the clock ticking around to midnight I wrongly assumed that we’d go straight to penalties. Instead, the teams lined up for extra-time and after the first fifteen minutes each side had added another goal.

At that point I called it a night as I didn’t care which team won and I was worried that I might not be able to find a taxi outside. My fears were unfounded though and a bloke outside, who volunteered that Joss Butler was his favourite cricketer, agreed to drive me back to town for one hundred and fifty riyals. Perhaps I had underpaid the first guy.

I checked on the score when I got back to the hotel and at ten to one in the morning Barcelona had prevailed on penalties, setting up the ‘Clasico’ final that the sponsors and tv companies will have been hoping for.

Al-Shabab v Al-Ittihad, Monday 9th January 2023, 9.15pm

January 24, 2023

Ten days after my first visit to the Prince Faisal bin Fahd Stadium to watch Al-Hilal, I was back to see the other tenants, Al-Shabab, in another top-tier Saudi Pro-League fixture. This time I’d bought a ticket online in advance, but at a cost of two hundred riyals, which is around forty-four quid and almost seven times the price that Al-Hilal charge. I’ve no idea why there’s such a difference but I dare say I’ll find out before long.

There were a lot of people milling around outside, perhaps equally baffled by the pricing. My ticket was in the open area opposite where I’d been sat the previous week. The segregation policy wasn’t enforced as there were a few women and kids in my section. The opposition, Al-Ittihad, had brought a decent away following and had a section at the other end of the ground. The ground was still only a quarter or so full though, with just under six and a half thousand fans in the twenty-odd thousand capacity stadium.

There was a bit of a scuffle near me in the first half, with a couple of blokes giving each other a slap. That’s actual slaps with a flat palm to the face. It turns out that there were a few away fans in our section and they were making their allegiance obvious. I don’t know why they didn’t just sit in the empty areas near to their allocated section, rather than plonking themselves in the middle of the seats occupied by the more vocal Al-Shabab supporters. The stewards did their best but were ignored and it took the arrival of a copper to restore order and lead the slappers to an exit.

I got chatting to Ahmed, who was a supporter of Al-Hilal and Arsenal, but like me was just keen to watch a game. He seemed surprised that I only followed the Boro and that I didn’t have a Premier League side as well. I was tempted to mention that I’d been looking out for Bournemouth’s results this season in the hope that Tav was doing well in his post-Boro career, but thought that would just make me look even odder.

Al-Shabab took the lead from a penalty on twenty minutes, but Al-Ittihad equalized soon after with a scrambled effort that they seemed to be doing their best to miss. The score stayed that way and with both the teams fighting it out with Al-Hilal in the top four, Ahmed was happy to see them both drop points.

Al-Hilal v Damac, Saturday 31st December 2022, 8.30pm

January 20, 2023

I’ve got some business going on in Saudi Arabia at the moment. It’s not a place that I’d ever really expected to visit and so adding it to the list of countries where I’ve watched football strikes me as a bit of a bonus.

My hotel is in the Malaz area of Riyadh and I’ve been going for a walk on a morning around the perimeter of the King Abdullah Park. The route takes me past the Prince Faisal bin Fahd Stadium and as both Al-Hilal and Al-Shabab stage fixtures there, it was just a matter of waiting for the first one to crop up.

Al-Hilal were first, with a game against Damac in the top-tier Saudi Pro League. An 8.30pm kick-off gave me plenty of time for buying a ticket, but it wasn’t quite as easy as I’d hoped. Each morning as I lapped the ground I’d passed three ticket offices, but on the night of the game they were just as closed as they had been at seven in the morning.

I asked a steward how I bought a ticket and he told me that it was online only, via Al-Hilal’s ticket app. It wasn’t the easiest of apps to find and I struggled for a few minutes before a fella asked me if I needed a ticket. When he found out that I did, he told me to take a photo of one that he had on his phone and then refused to take any money for it. The ticket was thirty riyals, which is about seven quid, so it was a generous gesture from him.

My next problem was that the ticket was for the area reserved for women and families. As I entered the stand it looked as if the women’s section was to the left with the families to right. I’d struggle to pass convincingly as female, even if I am at the age where many of them will have facial hair, and so I took a seat in the family area, on the basis that I easily pass for a granda.

The segregation wasn’t enforced, with a few mixed couples sat together in the women’s area and lots of people in my section without children. I looked over to the stand opposite and could see women and kids over there too, so it’s a policy that may no longer be a thing.

My section had a roof over it, but with no rain forecast and the sun having long gone down it offered no advantage over the uncovered bowl to the other three sides of the pitch. The ground holds over twenty thousand but was only a quarter full, with twenty or so away fans behind the goal to my right.

I got chatting to a couple of teenage lads sat in the row in front of me who kept trying to feed me popcorn. I’ve never contemplated popcorn as football food. Mind you I can’t see the attraction of it in cinemas either. Or in the house. With the big news that week being Ronaldo signing for Al-Hilal’s rivals, Al-Nassr, one of them told me that they had plans to sign Messi. Maybe he’s in the know.

The only player that I was familiar with was the Al-Hilal striker, Ighalo. He’s the fella that Man Utd borrowed from a Chinese club a couple of years ago. He did ok, opening the scoring late in the first half when he steered home a cross from the left.

The home side doubled their lead not long after the restart when an Ighalo shot was turned onto the post and the rebound bundled in by a teammate.

Al-Hilal looked like they had put the game to bed with a third on the hour, but a VAR check ruled it out for offside. With time running out and the home side having withdrawn some of their better players, Damac pulled a goal back. They put the pressure on and equalized in added time after the Al-Hilal keeper, who had done well up to that point, fumbled a shot.

The small group of away fans were ecstatic with the lads in front of me distraught. Maybe they’ll cheer up when Messi signs.

The game brought my 2022 football watching to an end and the futbology app revealed that I’d been to one hundred and five matches, ranging from the World Cup to the tier seventeen Westmorland League Division Four, with a couple of Sunday League games for good measure. I’d watched the Boro first team thirty times and the Riverside was my most visited stadium with twenty-four visits. Key stat for me was that I’d been to seventy-four new grounds over the course of the year, taking my lifetime total to four hundred and seventy eight. It was a very enjoyable year.