Archive for March, 2023

Al-Shabab v Al-Fayah, Thursday 9th March 2023, 8.30pm

March 21, 2023

There’s a couple of weeks to go before Ramadan starts and the decorations are already up in the hotel that I’m staying in. I’m curious as to whether there’s an acceptable date for putting up decorations and whether most people adhere to it. I’m also hoping to find out if some people feel Ramadany, in the way that some people in the UK feel more Christmassy than others.

The walk to the ground was busy with people, some going to the match, others just embracing the start of the weekend. Lots of families were picnicking outside of the park and their kids were running around in the way that small kids do. One of them was dragging a kite behind him. It had the shape and print of a bird of prey, hopefully an actual kite. When the kid got it airborne it caused one of the feral cats that lives in the area to freeze, unsure of whether it should pounce or was about to be pounced upon.

Al-Fayah were the team that I’d seen a month or so ago beating Al-Hilal here in some cup competition. I remembered them primarily because of their orange-clad fans. They hadn’t brought as many with them this time but those that did turn up kept up a constant racket, reminding me of a bunch of Hare Krishnas.

This game was in the league and of greater importance to Al-Shabab who were third in the table than Al-Fayah sitting in eighth place and with little to play for. Most eyes were on the first v second game in Jeddah between Al-Nassr and Al-Ittihad and I suspect that many Al-Shabab fans would have hoped for a draw in that fixture. Some people may have stayed home to watch it as it looked like there were fewer than two thousand spectators in the ground.

Al-Shabab opened the scoring a quarter of an hour in and added two more before half-time. At that stage it looked like game over. A kid behind me attracted my attention by shouting “Inglesi, Inglesi” at me. I’m not sure how he’d worked out my nationality from the back of my head but he proudly told me that he was from Yemen, whilst his little mate was a Saudi. Whilst we were chatting Al-Fayah pulled one back with an own goal to go in at the break two down.

The visitors came out for the re-start all fired up and halved the deficit within minutes, setting up a nervy second half. With ten minutes to go attention turned to Jeddah where Al-Ittihad had gone a goal up against Ronaldo’s team. I could see the action on a telly in an executive box and was half expecting VAR to find a way to chalk it off. It stood though and with Al-Shabab managing to see out this game for a three-two win, it meant they had closed the gap to one of their title rivals.

Al-Hilal v Al Fateh, Monday 6th March 2023, 8.30pm

March 19, 2023

Al-Hilal hadn’t played a game at home for more than six weeks due to their involvement in Morocco in the World Club Championship, or whatever it’s called these days. This was swiftly followed by the latter stages of the Asian Champions League which were played on a tournament basis in Qatar. They did well in both competitions, going down to Real Madrid in the final of the first one and qualifying for the final in the second, which will take place at the back end of April.

Either the prolonged absence or the notable achievements, or more likely a combination of the two, meant that this was a much more popular occasion than usual. Tickets generally go on sale two days before the match and with routine sales of no more than  four thousand, I didn’t make it a priority. I got around to booking my seat the day before the game and by that time the main stand had sold out. I ended up buying a ticket in the smaller stand opposite, on the curve.

The ground is only around ten minute’s walk from where I’ve been staying and I decided to set off early and do a couple of laps of the adjoining park. Despite there being an hour and a half to go to kick-off, the streets were crowded and the queues were already forming at the gates. I cut my walk short and headed in with an hour still to go.

My section already had more people in it than it usually would. The stand opposite was filling up to and eventually had few empty seats. This was for a clash between the fifth and sixth placed teams in the league and whilst Al-Hilal had played three fewer games than all of their rivals, they had had an unlikely thirteen points to make up.

The attendance was eventually announced as just short of fourteen thousand, which is three and a half times busier than I’ve seen at their games so far. Sadly, it didn’t work out as planned with Al-Hilal starting off sloppily and focusing more on showboating than securing the points.

Al Fateh went in front late in the first half and clinched the points ten minutes from time, sparking a mass exodus and taking the attendance back to a more regular level. Al-Hilal notched a consolation in added time but when the final whistle went the homecoming heroes were loudly booed as they headed for the tunnel.

Al-Nassr v Al-Batin, Friday 3rd March 2023, 8.30pm

March 15, 2023

I’m beginning to get the hang of taxis in Riyadh. Most of the drivers speak little English and my Arabic is non-existent, so I’ll suggest a destination, they will hand me their phone and I’ll enter it into google maps. Occasionally there will be a meter and even more occasionally they might turn it on.

More often than not the drivers originate from abroad, sometimes Pakistan or Afghanistan but frequently from Yemen, as was the case for my journey to Mrsool Park. Despite our lack of a common language, he rang his family back home and had me say hello and wave to them on a video call. He also stopped at a roadside vendor and got us each a bottle of water.

I’d set off early from the afternoon game I’d been at as I was mindful of the extent of the traffic last time I’d been to this stadium. The journey went well this time, perhaps partly because we approached from a different direction but mainly as I was at the ground a good hour and a half before kick-off.

I’d not had anything to eat since lunchtime and so I browsed the options on the concourse. As well as the usual burgers and hot dogs, different concessions sold cake, ice cream, popcorn, pastries, slushes and coffee. There was also a kebab place doing chicken shawarmas, which is what I went for. It was exceptionally good, way better than the ones that were sold at the World Cup.

I also got a coffee from one of the other concessions, but there’s a no drinks policy in the seats and so I had to stay down in the concourse for a while longer. The wi-fi worked fine though and I was able to keep myself occupied until nearer kick-off time.

The expectation around me was for an easy home win, which wasn’t surprising considering that Al-Nassr were top of the table with Al-Batin adrift at the bottom. It doesn’t always go to plan though and the visitors went a goal up early in the first half. The header had initially been disallowed by the ref for a push, but the decision was corrected by VAR. I say corrected, but the two fellas next to me scrutinized it on their phones and were adamant that it shouldn’t have counted.

Ronaldo could have levelled ten minutes before the break after rounding the keeper. His shot was weak though and easily cleared off the line. A-Nassr applied the pressure in the second half, but it seemed like it wouldn’t be their night. Ronaldo put a couple of free-kicks over the bar and then as the clock ran down missed with a header and then a scuffed shot.

The holding up of the board signifying an additional ten minutes finally brought the league leaders and the crowd to life and four minutes into stoppage time Al-Nassr equalized. Twelve minutes in they scrambled the winner and with Al-Batin punch-drunk, immediately added a third. Those home fans who hadn’t slunk away with ninety minutes approaching went home very happy indeed.

Al-Nassr U17 v Al-Qadasiya U17, Friday 3rd March 2023, 3.50pm

March 12, 2023

It had been a quiet couple of weeks football-wise. Al-Hilal had been involved in the Club World Cup in Morocco and then headed off to Qatar where they and Al-Shabab were playing in the knock-out stages of the Asian Champions League. Al-Nassr were playing away and there weren’t any lower level or age group games anywhere in Riyadh. Fortunately, things were back to normal by this weekend, and I had a couple of games to go to, starting with an under seventeen fixture at the Prince Abduarrahman bin Saud Stadium, or as most people refer to it, the Al-Nassr Stadium.

On the way there I stopped off to have a mooch around Masmak fortress. Around rather than inside is the correct term as it was shut. I’ll have to go back some other time when the opening hours don’t clash with a match. Walking around the perimeter it looked like something that Disney might have knocked up, so I’ll be interested to see some photos from twenty, fifty, a hundred years ago to try and gauge how much of it is original.

I didn’t hang around at Masmak and instead took at taxi to the game. It wasn’t an official cab and I doubt it would have passed an MoT. The fella quoted me a price of forty riyals and when I hesitated, he quickly dropped it to thirty. My pause had been due to not wanting to rip him off and so I offered him fifty instead. He was a little bemused at my reverse haggling technique but happy to settle for what was still around half of what other drivers might have charged for the twenty-minute journey.

Al-Nassr Stadium is out to the south-west of the city and it’s where their first team played prior to the club outbidding Al-Hilal for the use of Mrsool Park. It has a lot of wasteland around it where blokes were taking part in games of cricket. There’s a construction boom in Saudi Arabia at the moment and I suspect that it won’t be long before the makeshift wickets are claimed for tower blocks.

The security guard at the stadium gate seemed to think that I was part of the tv crew and waved me over to where they were setting up. I’d have been quite happy to have pitched in and moved some cables around, but I doubt that my efforts would have been welcomed. Instead, I left them to it and took a seat in the covered main stand where the shade provided some welcome respite from the heat. Opposite was an uncovered stand that started off empty but accommodated a few people later in the game as the sun started to go down.

There were around thirty people watching as the game kicked off. Al-Nassr took the lead early on when they beat the offside trap. I wasn’t convinced but despite the presence of the tv crew, photographers with big lenses, wags in the directors box and all of other trappings of top-flight football they don’t have VAR at this level yet and so the goal stood. A couple of minutes later an away defender failed to clear a cross and a simple finish made it two.

At that point Al-Qadasiya made their first sub. Hopefully the lad had picked up a knock and wasn’t being scapegoated for the two quick goals.

Maybe the sub made a difference as the game evened up and we reached half-time with just the two goals in it. Someone came around distributing bottles of water, which were well received. As the second half went on the crowd grew to around a hundred and fifty, some of them Al-Nassr kids from other age-group teams, others were cricketers from the wasteland calling in once they’d had enough of their own games.

Al-Nassr added a couple more goals before the end, with the four-nil score reflecting their superiority. I headed off at full-time in a taxi bound for Mrsool Park and their first team fixture.

Al-Nassr v Al Taawoun, Friday 17th February 2023, 6pm

March 9, 2023

As you might have expected I’d been keen to see Ronaldo turning out for Al-Nassr. I missed his first game at Mrsool Park, a fixture that sold out pretty much within minutes. I kept checking their website over the next few days and was rewarded with the chance to buy a half season ticket, which in this case equated to the remaining seven games. It worked out at around eighteen quid a match, so not a great deal different to the Boro.

On the morning of the game, I called in at Riyadh Zoo. It’s just around the corner from where I’m staying, and I thought it might be an interesting change from walking around the local park. I’m not really a fan of zoos, although I doubt anyone is really. With the temperatures rising in Riyadh, I arrived early. There were already a lot of people inside, mainly families, which you tend to get visiting Zoos.

Checking out animals that I’d previously seen in the wild brought back a lot of memories, from hundred-strong herds of elephants in Addo, to the sleeping brown bear that Jen and I stumbled across in Shenandoah in the US. There was an Arabian wolf, which I’ve not seen anywhere before. Hopefully I’ll get to see one of those in a more natural environment, perhaps foraging through a wheelie bin for the remains of a chicken shawarma.

A highlight might very well have been the dassies, most of which were sleeping in the sun. I spent a while just leaning on their enclosure wall as most people scurried by in search of something more prestigious. They looked thinner than the ones that would visit our garden in Bronkhorstspruit, although that might be because those little bastards would scoff the roses from the pots that I’d put on the patio.

The trip to the stadium took over an hour to cover a route that should really have taken half that time. The taxi was caught in tailbacks long before we could see the ground, which worked well for the flag and scarf sellers weaving in and out of the stationary traffic.

Once I’d got out I had to do virtually an entire lap of the ground to reach my gate, although once inside I had access to at least half of the sections. There was a separate entrance for season ticket holders and the bloke ahead of me might well have blagged his way in by pretending to talk on his phone as if too engrossed to show his ticket.

My seat for the rest of the season was ok, diagonally back from the corner flag and about three quarters of the way up a reasonably compact ground. I think that there would have been a decent view from just about everywhere. The club had left large flags out for everyone, but I was happy to shift mine along the row for some kid to pick up.

The hardcore Al-Nassr fans were behind the goal to my left. They let off a few flares before kick-off which meant that the opening minutes were played with smoke drifting around the penalty box. Most eyes were on Ronaldo and he started off busily, chasing people down, but in the way that Tuncay used to do for us where it seemed more for show than with any real intent to make a difference.

Al-Nassr went one up a quarter of an hour in, when someone who wasn’t Ronaldo chased a through ball and got there just ahead of the defender. Al-Taawoun clearly hadn’t read the script though and equalized straight after the break, before appearing to go ahead midway through the second half. VAR intervened to keep the scores level and then came to Al-Nassr’s help ten minutes from time by awarding a goal that the ref had originally chalked off.

By this stage the fella next to me was adamant that Ronaldo needed hooking, but that was never going to happen. Al-Nassr saw out the added time to take the points and move back to the top of the table.

Al-Shabab v Abha, Tuesday 14th February 2023, 6pm

March 7, 2023

With the short trip to Spain over, it was back to Saudi Arabia and another game at the Prince Faisel bin Fahd Stadium. This one was a home fixture for Al-Shabab and the big surprise was that the tickets that to date have cost me two-hundred riyals a time were only ten riyals for this match. I wondered whether it was to try and draw in those couples wondering how to celebrate Valentine’s Day. I’m told, a bit like Christmas and Halloween, it is becoming something that local businesses have realized is ripe for commercialization.

I had some stuff to do, so didn’t quite get to the ground in time for kick-off. In addition to the large reduction in price I noticed that the ticket offices were open. Maybe someone is making an effort to increase attendances and include those who like to pay cash on the day rather than having to buy online.

Once inside I concluded that the changes had made little difference. There were still fewer than four thousand people there, despite Al-Shabab being in contention for the title. I didn’t notice too many date-night couples either, although there were more children in the ground than previously. Hopefully the drop in ticket price is here to stay and they will get to attend more frequently.

Another change that I noticed was that Al-Shabab’s Polish midfielder Grzegorz Krychowrak had dropped back from midfield to central defence. He’s one of the players that I keep an eye on, mainly because he’s readily identifiable, but also because I saw him play for Lokomotiv Moscow when I was living in Russia. He did ok in a deeper role, although as a defensive midfielder he would often slip back into defence as cover anyway.

Al-Shabab took the lead twenty minutes in, with a shot drilled in low from the edge of the box. They had a couple of other good chances in the first half that would have killed the visitors off including one that hit the underside of the bar, but they didn’t take them.

The crowd seemed lively enough to me, but someone clearly wasn’t satisfied and there was a quick burst of fake cheering played through the speaker system. I remember Mark Page doing it during one of the Boro’s European games and thought it was cringeworthy then. If only that were the worst of his crimes.

The clinching second goal came ten minutes into the second half and the win took Al-Shabab three points clear of Al-Nassr and Al-Ittihad at the top of the table, albeit having played three games more than both their rivals. It’s promising to be a decent battle for the title and maybe the reduced prices will get a few more fans in to see it.