Al-Hilal v Urawa Red Diamonds, Saturday 29th April 2023, 8pm

Whilst Al-Hilal have had a poor league campaign by their standards, they’ve done ok in the cups and have reached three finals. This game was the first leg of the Asian Champions League Final and in order to accommodate the demand for tickets the venue had been switched from the Prince Faisal bin Fahd stadium near to where I stay to the much larger King Fahd stadium twenty kilometres or so away.

In one way I was surprised by the demand. Most of the Al-Hilal games that I’ve attended this season have had crowds of around four thousand. It’s been a bit like Ayresome Park in that second Bobby Murdoch season. However, they are the most successful team in Saudi Arabia and so they will have a lot of fans who turn up once a year, no doubt proclaiming their absolute loyalty.

Perhaps some of my interest in the sudden increase in Al-Hilal fans attending games was because I’d struggled for a ticket, despite being one of the four thousand that regularly turned up this season at the Prince Faisal ground. I’d managed to get a last-minute ticket due to the helpfulness of three young lads at the Al-Nassr game the previous night who were able to find one that may have just been released from someone’s online basket.

As the ticket required the use of an animated QR code, linked to the ticket holder’s account, they also very kindly sent me a video of it as a screenshot wasn’t sufficient.

I was in the stadium with an hour to spare and it was just as well as it was already half-full. There were plenty of seats available lower down, but these required you to watch through a fence and with a running track between the stands and the pitch a view from high up is a better option. I took a seat in the very back row with some friendly Al-Hilal fans. They gave me a mint tea, some water and even a twix. I felt a bit guilty that I had nothing to offer in return other than a slagging off of Al-Nassr, which was very well received.

We were close to the away fans and they were magnificent, as Stevie Mac would say, with non-stop singing and flag waving. I reckon they must only be allowed to travel if they are prepared to put the effort in. Mind you, the home fans did well too, with a pre-match tifo display involving plastic bags. By the time everyone was in, the attendance had exceeded fifty thousand and people were sitting on the steps between sections.

Al-Hilal had the ball throughout most of the game with Urawa relying on counter-attacks. The pressure paid off early on and they went in front on the quarter hour. They should have made it two fifteen minutes later but the chance was squandered. Urawa equalized early in the second half after a sliding interception from a defender sent the ball past his own goalie and then back off the post, with the rebound tucked away.

That was it for goals, but we had some late drama when an Al-Hilal player was sent off for booting a bloke who had fouled him. Both teams had pretty much settled for a draw at that point anyway, leaving it all to play for in the second leg.

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