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

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.

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