Archive for February, 2023

Real Avila v Unami Club Polideportivo, Sunday 5th February 2023, 6pm

February 25, 2023

The second game of our trip was in Avila itself and so I was able to walk to the match from our apartment next to the cathedral in the town centre. We’d previously walked the city wall, both on the outside and where allowed, along the top. It was described as medieval, but I doubt much of it was there even a hundred years ago. Still, it looked good, particularly in the dark when lit up.

The route to the Estadio Adolfo Suarez took me though the stone entrance arch and then down to the part of town that would presumably have been left exposed whenever the place was attacked. I passed closed shops and some low-level housing blocks. Not much of it looked worth ransacking.

It wasn’t clear where the entrance to the ground was and there weren’t many fans heading to the match. I ended up walking three-quarters of the way around the ground before I found the spot where people were going in and a hole in the wall that served as a ticket office.

My ticket was ten euros and it made a welcome change to be able to pay in cash and not to have to download an App. I’d read online that Real Avila sell season tickets for a hundred euros with roughly half-price concessions for pensioners, under twenty-fives and the unemployed. Well done, that club. And well done to the lady in the ticket office for not assuming that I’m of the age where I qualify for a senior discount.

Just inside the gate was a bloke raffling a pig’s leg. There’s a time when I’d have been keen to get involved but Jen was already close to her luggage weight limit and with us being outside the EU I think that it’s now prohibited to take meat products into the UK from Spain. It would have been little use to me either, as I was heading back to a country that doesn’t look favourably on the importation of pork.

The game was in the Tercera division, which up until recently was the fourth tier, but after the latest reorganization is now the fifth. Real Avila went into the game in third place, no doubt with ambitions of moving beyond the Tercera for the first time in their history. Opponents Unami were propping up the sixteen-team division.

The Estadio Adolfo Suarez dates back to 1976 and looks like nothing has been spent on maintenance since. There’s one big covered stand, which is where I sat, and an abandoned open stand opposite. A cycle racetrack runs around two thirds of the ground but had enough pot holes to be more of a BMX obstacle course than anything suitable for racing. The pitch was behind the type of fence that you might use to keep someone from accessing a building site and a handful of people gave up the option of sitting in the main stand to loiter pitch side and watch through the mesh. The stadium capacity was given as six thousand but I doubt very much that’s the case these days.

Real Avila were in a red and navy combo with Unami in white. Not a lot happened in the opening stages which is just as well as few people seemed to be paying any attention to events taking place on the pitch. There was a constant low-level conversational hum which was clearly friends catching up with each other and talking about whatever they had got up to in the past fortnight.

The noise levels increased twenty minutes in when half a dozen ultras rocked up with flags and a loudhailer. They took up positions at the edge of the stand and had me wishing that I’d selected a seat much further away than I was.

Avila broke the deadlock a few minutes from half-time when a player chased a through ball and got there a fraction of a second before the keeper did. He managed to pop it over the goalie’s head with just the right amount of pace on it to drop down before it reached the goal and beat the despairing lunge of a defender who did his best to get a boot to it.

Unami should have levelled in added time when one of their strikers hit the bar from three yards out. He tried to put more on it than it needed and if he had just let it ricochet off his outstretched leg then it would probably have been sufficient to make it one-each.

At half time I had a wander about and caught a glimpse inside the room where the ultras kept their flags. It was graffitied with swastikas and mentions of Hitler. Bizarrely, the outside was decorated with a painting of Andy Capp.

I took a closer look at the occupants in the second half and saw that one of them was waving a Cross of Burgundy flag, which an online search revealed is popular with the far-right. It’s shameful that Real Avila tolerate the presence of neo-Nazis at their ground and something that should have no place at football or anywhere else for that matter.

Any sympathies that I might have had for the hosts went out of the window at this point and I found myself rooting for Unami. Whilst you rarely know the politics of those around you in a crowd, it’s still unsettling to see fascists out in the open at the match. Avila had a ‘goal’ disallowed five minutes from time to my delight and then an Unami block on the line brought a further smile to my face. Sadly, the visitors couldn’t nick the point that would have pissed off the home supporters and sent me back into town with a spring in my step.

CD Leganes v Sporting Gijon, Saturday 4th February 2023, 4.15pm

February 21, 2023

Jen and I like to get to Spain fairly frequently and this trip was another one based around flying into Madrid. I arrived early morning from the Middle East with Jen having spent the previous night at an airport hotel. Our plan was to stay three nights in Avila and then head back to Madrid for an evening out prior to catching our return flights the following day.

First up was some hiking. We broke the journey to Avila at the Fuenfria valley and walked up into the hills. There was still snow on the ground and as we gained height, I regretted not having any of those spikey things with me to slip over my boots. We didn’t see much in the way of wildlife, a couple of those big soary-type birds and a dog in the car park that might have been half-bear, but it was good to get out into the hills.

We’ve taken a similar approach in the past where we pick up a hire car in Madrid and motor out of the city for an hour or so to places like Toledo or Segovia. Avila was just as good, with a medieval wall around the town and sufficient bars and restaurants to meet the needs of someone who hadn’t had a drink for the previous six weeks.

As you might have expected, I’d checked out the nearby fixtures and Real Avila had a game on the Sunday. There were a few options for Saturday, and I picked a game at Leganes mainly on the basis that an afternoon kick-off wouldn’t impact upon the evening activities. I was also influenced by Leganes having an ex-Boro player turning out for them. Or at least they usually do. Ken Omeruo, a long-term loanee under Mogga and Karanka, is a regular for Leganes these days, but, as is often the way, picked up an injury after I’d booked the tickets.

I took the scenic route from Avila and it was an enjoyable drive to the outskirts of Madrid. We left the car in a Decathlon car park five minutes’ walk from the Estadio Municipal de Butarque and headed around to the south stand.

The tickets had cost thirty euros each and we were able to have them scanned directly from my phone at the entrance gate. Our seats were behind one of the goals in an open section. There was just the one covered stand and the twelve thousand capacity looks to be about right for a fairly unfashionable Madrid team in the second tier.

There was a small section of Sporting Gijon fans in the corner to the side of our section. This was supplemented by a few more fans on the other side of the fence and then the odd one or two dotted about near us. The doesn’t seem to be any real rivalry between the clubs, or if there is, it didn’t extend to any animosity between the supporters.

Oddly, the floodlights were on long before kick-off, despite the bright sunshine. Maybe there are tighter restrictions on utility company profits in Spain. Highlight of the first half was the visit of the churros bloke. He wandered around the stand selling three churros with a cup of chocolate dip for three and a half euros.

Leganes went a goal up inside three minutes with a shot from the edge of the box that sneaked through a crowd of players and ended up in the net. They were well on top at that stage and could easily have put the game out of Gijon’s reach if they had taken one or two of the chances that they created. The momentum changed ten minutes before the break though when a yellow card was changed to a red after a VAR intervention and the home side found themselves a man down.

As the second half went on, the visitors grew in confidence and looked likely to take something from the game. Or at least they did until the ref evened up the numbers with a few minutes to go. Every time there was a Gijon foul, and sometimes when there wasn’t, the Leganes players had been agitating for cards. It finally paid off with a red in the closing stages.

With the numbers down to ten a side Leganes were able to see it out and take the points. We took a more direct route back to Avila for a prompt start on the tapas and rioja.

Al-Draih v Al-Sadd, Friday 27th January 2023, 3.35pm

February 20, 2023

With the exception of the one age-group game, all of my fixtures in Saudi Arabia so far have been between top-tier Saudi Pro-League sides or else Super Cup games featuring foreign clubs. I’ve been using the Goalzz website to try and find something a little further down their pyramid and it threw up a game in the Second Division, which is actually the third tier.

The game was listed as being at the Prince Faisel bin Fahd Stadium near to where I’m staying and whilst I’d have preferred to tick off a new ground, I was happy enough with the prospect of seeing a game that needed just a ten-minute walk to get there.

I’d expected the fixture to take place on the practice pitch where I’d seen an Under-17 match a week earlier, but there was nothing going on there. I continued around the perimeter to the main entrance and, after nodding confidently at the security guard, made my way inside. He called me back almost immediately and asked where I was going. He knew nothing about a football game, but with it being third tier I hadn’t really expected that he would.

There was another fella there too, sat in his car, and the guard mentioned that he was also there for a non-existent football fixture. By this time I was starting to grasp that there really wasn’t anything going on at the stadium and it looked as if I was in for a quiet afternoon.

Fortunately, the bloke in the car had an inkling as to what had happened and he confirmed that the game was at a different location to the one that Goalzz had advised. With the security guard translating, we established that the distance was too far to walk and that I should hop in to the car.

We set off for the new location with the language barrier limiting our conversation to exchanging our nationalities and confirming that we both thought that football was good. Every now and then he would make a call and after some coaching from whoever he was speaking to in Arabic, he would tell me in English that we would soon be at the ground.

Twenty minutes and around twenty kilometres later we spotted the floodlights and he pulled into the car park of the Al-Diriyah Sporting Club. There weren’t any spaces close to the entrance gate and so my new Saudi friend temporarily stopped right outside the entrance to let me out before finding somewhere to leave the car. I gestured that I’d see him inside and left him to it. That was the last that I saw of him.

All I can conclude is that between them, he and the security guard had decided that I should see the game at the correct stadium and he had volunteered to drive me there. Quite why he didn’t want to see it himself, I’ve no idea. It was an incredibly generous action. If I’d realized that was what he was doing I’d have thanked him a lot more profusely than I did and offered him some petrol money. I’ve found the Saudi people that I’ve met so far to be largely very kind and helpful. I’m not sure many people would drive what may have been a forty-kilometre round trip to help a stranger who didn’t even speak his language.

Once inside I sat down on a raised area along the side of the pitch. It seemed as if I was in the section reserved for visitors Al-Sadd and in addition to a handful of fans at least two of their coaching staff were in there, perhaps as an overspill from the bench.

Home side Al-Draih were in maroon, with Al-Sadd in a grey kit. Whilst I’d missed the first twenty-five minutes, I hadn’t missed any goals. Nobody came close to breaking the deadlock in the remainder of the first half and it was still goalless at the break.

At half-time I went to look for the toilets. I try to be fairly careful where I wander into over here as I don’t want to disrupt anyone praying and it’s not always easy to initially spot the difference between the prayer rooms and the toilets. I found the right place though and in the absence of any urinals headed into one of the cubicles.

A lot of the toilets have bowls but this one was a more traditional hole in the ground. As I was only having a slash I was fine with that. I wouldn’t want to use one for a crap though other than in emergencies as I’m not really supple enough for squatting these days. I was mid-flow before I noticed the overhead shower and the shampoo bottle in the corner. Bugger. I was pissing in a shower. I must admit it is something that I may have done before, but it’s the first time I’ve done it fully clothed. If anyone realized what I was up to they were polite enough not to mention it.

In the second half I moved around a bit, firstly to the three steps of terracing behind one of the goals. The terracing ran around three sides of the ground, with the other side having the section from which I’d watched in the first half. That side also had an equivalent section for the home fans and a posh covered stand in the middle for people who no doubt rarely piss in the shower.

I spent a short time in with the Al-Draih fans but their drums and chanting through a microphone and amp soon had me headed back to the relative calm of the away section.

Not a great deal happened on the pitch until ten minutes from time when a home corner was acrobatically turned in at the near post. That lead to some top-level timewasting from Al-Draih, particularly from their goalie and trainer who jogged at slower than walking pace whenever he was called upon.

The situation infuriated the Al-Sadd bench, who took it in turns to berate the officials as if they had a rota. The players were little better with lots of dissent and some manhandling of the ref. There was just the one goal in it at the end and the visitors were still objecting as I headed out to look for a taxi to take me back into town.

Al-Fayha v Al-Hilal, Thursday 26th January 2023, 6pm

February 19, 2023

These Al-Hilal home games at the Prince Faisel bin Fahd Stadium are coming around every few days, or at least they would be if this really was a home game. The fixture was a semi-final of the Saudi Super Cup and played at Al-Hilal’s home ground, but with them designated the away team.

That didn’t seem to make a lot of difference to anything apart from my plan to sit in what is normally a virtually empty section of the ground with it resulting in me being in with around three hundred Al-Fayha fans.

My Category Three ticket had set me back twenty-five riyals, which is about six quid. A bargain, apart from having to stand in a section full of people making a racket. The stewards weren’t keen on anyone breaking ranks, but I waited until one was otherwise occupied and moved thirty yards to the right to an empty section beyond the area that he was responsible for. If he was going to make me move back, he’d have to come and get me, and he didn’t care sufficiently to do that.

My new section was below what looked like a commentary box and the overhang came in very useful when light drizzle started to fall. The Al-Fayha fans to my left kept up their high tempo support despite the change in weather and were rewarded twenty minutes in when their team scored on the break.

Al-Hilal had a chance to hit back a few minutes later when the Polish guy who had reffed the World Cup Final and who was guesting in this competition gave them a penalty. Just as the fashion was in Qatar, the keeper did his best to disrupt proceedings and it may well have worked, with the spot-kick hitting the post.

The rain had stopped by half-time and with the top-tier of the open stand to my left beckoning I switched sections. A few of the Al-Fayha fans had the same idea, but anyone wearing orange colours was turned away. I’m of the age where I’m rarely suspected of doing anything that I shouldn’t and I’ve learned that a confident manner is generally sufficient to avoid any scrutiny.

I’d selected the upper tier as that was also somewhere that I’d not been in before. It filled up as the second half got underway with six young women arriving and sitting in the row in front of me. It looks as if any gender segregation is a thing of the past here and it’s good to see lots of women coming to the game. I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen six women attending a match at the Boro as a group.

Al-Hilal had their chances in the second half including two close range misses that should have been put away. They couldn’t find the net though and it was Al-Fayha that went through to the final. Al-Hilal were booed off the field, which I thought was a little harsh, as there was clearly no lack of effort on their part. As I walked past the end of the ground where I’d spent the first half I could hear the Al-Fayha fans celebrating long after everyone else had left.

Al-Hilal v Abha, Sunday 22nd January 2023, 6pm

February 2, 2023

Today was Ronaldo Day, with him making his debut for Al-Nassr. I’d tried to get tickets online but despite adding one to the cart any number of times I was never able to close it out before the ticket mysteriously vanished.

I wasn’t too despondent though as Al-Hilal had a home game and they never sell out. Or at least they won’t until they sign Messi.

I had some stuff to do and so didn’t make it to the Prince Faisel bin Fahd Stadium until ten minutes or so after kick-off. Apparently I had turned up at the wrong gate, but having told me, the fella just waived me through anyway. The crowd seemed smaller than usual, perhaps due to the earlier kick-off, and I wasn’t surprised when it was announced as being below four thousand. It felt like Ayresome under Bobby Murdoch.

Abha didn’t contribute many to the attendance with just the two fans sitting to my left, although that’s double the number that Al-Adalah had following them in my previous game at the ground. Perhaps the relative cold weather played its part with many of the locals sat with their big winter coats on despite my phone telling me it was a balmy twenty-one degrees. For clarity, that’s Celsius.

Al-Hilal were in their traditional dark blue with Abha dressed up as Man City. Al-Hilal took the lead twenty minutes in after a spell of putting the visitors under pressure. There was a three-minute VAR check before the restart which, as a neutral, I don’t mind. Maybe if I start to develop some kind of allegiance to one of the teams here I might think a little differently. I’m pleased that we don’t have it in the Championship though, as when the Boro score I like to do nothing more than glance at the relevant linesman before celebrating.

The home lead didn’t last long though and five minutes after the opening goal was finally given Abha were level. It remained that way until half-time when a few drops of rain started to come down. WTF? I didn’t sign up for rain. Not over here. Perhaps those wearing big coats had a good reason.

Al-Hilal re-took the lead ten minutes into the second half from a penalty and looked like they had clinched it when substitute Moussa Marega finished a breakaway in added time. He’s a popular fella and the kids to my right had brought home-printed pictures of him to brandish. Their joy was short-lived though as a VAR review chalked off his goal and instead the ref awarded a free-kick just outside the box at the other end of the pitch. In the space of a minute it could easily have gone from three-one and game over to two-two and more dropped points. Fortunately for Al-Hilal the free-kick came to nothing, and they ran down the clock to seal the win.

Al-Shabab U17 v Al-Faisaly U17, Friday 20th January 2023, 3.35pm

February 1, 2023

Whilst I’d already been to a few games at the Prince Faisel bin Fahd Stadium, I’d not seen one at the adjacent practice pitch. Futbology isn’t much use in Saudi Arabia outside of the Saudi Pro League, but I’ve found a website, Goalzz, that lists fixtures as far down as the fifth tier as well as age group games. There was an U17 game scheduled for a Friday afternoon and on the basis that if the info was duff I’d only have wasted twenty minutes of my time, I had a walk along.

The route is one that I generally follow when out for a walk, taking me past the King Abdullah Park and then around the perimeter of the stadium complex. The park was busy, as was the outside, with vendors flogging anything from prayer mats to light sabers and families camped out for a picnic on any grassy area that they could find. Small kids were having a kick around, no doubt imagining themselves as Ronaldo.

As I passed the practice pitch, I could see the players warming up. That’s always a good sign. What was less promising was that the gate near to the pitch was closed and there was nobody about. I walked another couple of hundred yards around the stadium to the main entrance which fortunately was open.

I had no idea whether spectators were allowed for U17 games and so I just closely followed a family who were going through the gate. That worked to get me in without any questions but they then turned right to drop their kids off at judo club. A bloke was walking in the other direction, which after half a circuit of the main stadium, would hopefully end up with me being where I wanted to be. I followed him. A police car soon pulled up and asked him where he was going. Whatever he said and gestured was clearly the correct answer and, as they assumed that we were together, we were waived on. We went through the same process when a security guard in a car quizzed him fifty yards further on.

We weren’t too far from the practice pitch when the other fella wandered off the path, unlocked the team bus and got into the driver’s seat. I wasn’t expecting that but he’d served his purpose and I continued around to the small stands by the pitch and quietly took a seat, avoiding catching the eye of anyone who looked to be on official business.

There were a couple of other people by the side of the pitch, presumably something to do with the teams or else transport workers killing time. The rest of the three hundred or so seats were empty until kick-off time when a few people started trickling in through the nearby gate that had recently been opened. All of us had to watch the game through netting, which I’m never too happy about, but I managed to get a couple of photos through the gaps.

Visitors Al-Faisaly arrived by bus, presumably from the changing rooms on the other side of the stadium, and driven by my earlier walking companion. I’m not sure where the Al-Shabab teenagers came from, perhaps there was space for changing in the other stand behind the pitch.

I could describe all of the goals if I wanted to as I noted them all down but, let’s face it, none of us cares. Suffice to say Al-Shabab went a goal up, Al-Faisaly equalized and Al-Shabab restored their lead before the half-time bus trip. In the second half the visitors equalized again and then went three-two up.

They held their lead until the final ten minutes when Al-Shabab pegged it back and then nicked a winner. The fella next to me was convinced that the home side were going to throw it away and some lax defending almost resulted in another equalizer, but they hung on for a four-three win. By the end, the crowd had risen to around fifty, the usual mix of parents, friends, die-hards and bus drivers.