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

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.

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