Archive for January, 2023

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.