Posts Tagged ‘Al-Hilal’

Al-Hilal v Al-Ittihad, Tuesday 16th May 2023, 9.30pm

May 23, 2023

The biggest game in Saudi football is between Al-Hilal and Al-Ittihad. They are the two most successful clubs in the country by a long way and as the biggest teams in the two biggest cities, Riyadh and Jeddah, it’s a classic rivalry. It’s known as El Clasico over here, although Madrid and Barcelona may well raise a collective eyebrow at the borrowing of the term.

As befits the occasion ticket prices had risen from the usual twenty riyals for Al-Hilal home games to a still reasonable, I thought, ninety-two riyals.

I arrived with an hour to go to kick-off and it was busy outside. The usual scarf and flag sellers were out in force and most had supplemented their usual stock with some Al-Ittihad gear.

Whilst Al-Hilal don’t have much to play for in the league, Al-Ittihad were five points clear of Al-Nassr with just four games left. An away win would just about settle things. The rivalry was enough to guarantee a competitive game though and with Al-Hilal fresh from their Kings Cup victory it was Cup winners v Champions-elect.

Once inside I bought myself a shawarma and made my way up the six flights of stairs to the top tier. The away fans had around a quarter of the ground, and it seemed that most of them had brought a flag. Others had sneaked flares in with them, an impressive achievement given the body searches at the entrance gates, and we were treated to a display in the moments before kick-off.

Al-Ittihad settled first and seemed to have far too much space in the final third. They quickly went a goal up and then added a second on the half-hour.

Al-Hilal got a foothold after a VAR awarded goal where the keeper tried to push out a cross that ended up at his near post. The fans around me were adamant that it had crossed the line, but the players didn’t make much of a fuss. The action went on for a good three minutes before the ref received a whisper in his earpiece and belatedly pointed to the centre spot.

Surely a goal-line issue has to be settled quicker than that? There was an appeal for a pen just before half-time that was turned down but when the ref blew for the break everyone was wondering what would happen if three minutes later the VAR decided that it actually was a spot-kick? Do they come back out again? Or take it at the start of the second half?

In the second half Al-Hilal had the best of the possession and pushed for an equalizer, which finally came deep into added time when a header was saved but the rebound tucked away. The draw, plus Al-Nassr’s win, brought the title race back to life with just three points separating the top two and with three games to play.

Al-Hilal U19 v Al-Ohod U19, Thursday 11th May 2023, 8.45pm

May 22, 2023

An U19 fixture on the other side of town wouldn’t necessarily be something that I’d be overly interested in attending, particularly when it wasn’t scheduled to finish until well after ten-thirty. However, it was a chance to tick off another ground, my ninth in Saudi Arabia and all in Riyadh. That was enough to make me put in the effort and I took a taxi to the King Salman bin Abdul Aziz stadium. I’m not sure how widely used the name is and it might be more commonly known simply as the Al-Hilal stadium. Google Maps and Waze weren’t convinced by any of the names that I tried, and I ended up navigating by using the mosque next door as the destination.

On arrival I made a lap of the ground and nearly wandered into a basketball training session via the main entrance, but a group of young lads kindly directed me further around to the gate for the football.

It has been a while since the stadium was the regular home of the Al-Hilal first team. They currently turn out at the Prince Faisal stadium after having been booted out of Mrsool Park when Al-Nassr offered the landlord more cash. If they sign Messi, I suspect that they will be on the move again, to the sixty thousand capacity King Fahd ground.

This ground is ideal for youth games though, with a five thousand capacity and two stands, one covered, the other open. There’s no seating at either end behind the goals. I was in the covered stand, towards the back. If I’d been bothered, I could have removed a cover from one of the armchairs and sat in a bit of comfort, but I was happy enough with one of the tip-up seats.

I was soon joined by an old Egyptian bloke who showed me some clips on his phone of his son, Kareem, a striker for Al-Hilal. He was understandably very proud of his boy and from some of the goals on his highlight reel he looked a decent prospect. Kareem started up front, although he often dropped back into midfield to link up the play.

Visitors Al-Ohod took the lead after about half an hour and I was impressed by Kareem’s Dad applauding the goal. It wasn’t long before Al-Hilal equalized with a deflected shot and the teams went off at half-time level at one-each.

The game came to life a few minutes into the second half when the Al-Hilal left back picked up a second yellow card. Much to his Dad’s disappointment, it meant an early finish for Kareem too as he was sacrificed for a defender. On the hour Al-Hilal went down to nine men after another sending off. Their bench was apoplectic with the officials.

Al-Hilal still went for the winner despite being two players down. Their numerical disadvantage was soon halved as a last-ditch tackle from Al-Ohod on the edge of the box resulted in a straight DOGSO red. The Al-Hilal bench were happy enough over the sending-off but were adamant that it should have been a pen.

The home side continued to push for a second goal and with seven minutes of added time had their chances, including hitting the bar from a thirty-yard free kick. With nine additional minutes already gone there was another tackle in the Al-Ohod box. This time the penalty was given, and it was the turn of the visitors to berate the ref. It took four minutes for the situation to calm down and that’s without VAR.

The pen was dispatched, and the entire Al-Hilal staff and subs celebrated on the pitch as if they had won the World Cup. Within a few seconds of the eventual restart the ref finally brought the evening to an end.

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

May 19, 2023

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.

Al-Hilal v Al-Fateh, Tuesday 14th March 2023, 9pm.

April 29, 2023

Al-Hilal’s chances of winning the league may be gone but they could still end the season with a couple of trophies. Their Champion’s League final is a few weeks away and this game against Al-Fateh was a quarter-final in the King’s Cup. Tickets went on sale for all areas and so I took the opportunity to watch from the upper tier of the big, uncovered stand.

The queues to get in were slow, despite me having picked the gate that usually has the shortest lines. The delay was mainly due to people not having their apps open with the ticket showing. It wasn’t helped by the lack of queueing etiquette with numerous people pushing past me or, even when remaining behind, shoving their phone beyond me to be scanned. In frustration I curtly asked the fella with the scanner if I was invisible. He was very apologetic which made me feel like a dickhead. Again.

I took a seat three rows from the back where a pleasant breeze kept it cool. The high position meant that I could just about watch the entire proceedings without moving my head. The home singing fans are usually in this stand in the tier below but for this game at least some of them had relocated to the stand opposite. I didn’t notice any away fans. As the game went on the gaps around me were filled with late arrivals. You’d think a 9pm start would be sufficiently late for everyone to make kick-off.

Al-Hilal took the lead a quarter of an hour in with a VAR awarded pen that nobody had even appealed for. An Al-Fateh tapped in equalizer soon afterwards caused a nearby kid who had spent the game scoffing sunflower seeds, to shriek. The home side regained the lead early in the second half, but then soon went down to ten men. It was all quite nervy until Ighalo notched a third a few minutes from time to seal the place in the semi-final.

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-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-Hilal v Al-Adalah, Sunday 15th January 2023, 6pm

January 30, 2023

It’s great having two Saudi Pro League teams staging their fixtures at the Prince Faisel bin Fahd Stadium as less than twenty-four hours after watching Al-Shabab, I was back, in just about the same seat, for Al-Hilal’s game against Al-Adalah.

There are a lot more women and children at the Al-Hilal games and maybe that’s because it’s more likely that the whole family will come along when the tickets are thirty riyals each rather than two-hundred.

Something I have noticed at these games is that I’m the only fella with white hair. I don’t know if Arabs like to slap on some Just For Men or whether the fellas wearing the headgear are doing it to hide the grey. Maybe they just keep their old people sat quietly in the house. Whatever the reason, I haven’t yet seen anyone with a head of white hair like mine.

Al-Adalah had been given the end to my left for their fans, which was probably a little excessive given that only one fella had turned up to support them. It’s over three hundred kilometres to Al-Hasa, where they are based but I’d have thought that they must have had some fans working in the Riyadh area.

Al-Hilal started the game in fourth place, no doubt still rueing the two dropped points in their previous home game. A win would move them up to second whilst Al-Adalah are in the lower reaches of the table and not likely to be involved in anything meaningful on their own part.

I knew none of the players turning out for Al-Adalah, but I dare say that might change in time. Ighalo was missing for the hosts and as chance after chance went begging it was clear how important he was to the team.

We were an hour into the game before Al-Hilal finally went ahead from a VAR awarded penalty that was initially saved, then retaken and eventually blasted into the top corner. Al-Hilal added a second goal on the counter to make the points safe, although I’d thought that in their game against Damac on New Year’s Eve and they ballsed that one up.

Al-Adalah’s chances of a comeback faded further when they had a bloke sent off in the dying minutes for a second yellow. He got a generous round of applause as he left the pitch to the extent that he may have been a former Al-Hilal player. If so, he played his part as the home team held on to take the points and moved up to second from top.

Al-Shabab v Al-Ittihad, Monday 9th January 2023, 9.15pm

January 24, 2023

Ten days after my first visit to the Prince Faisal bin Fahd Stadium to watch Al-Hilal, I was back to see the other tenants, Al-Shabab, in another top-tier Saudi Pro-League fixture. This time I’d bought a ticket online in advance, but at a cost of two hundred riyals, which is around forty-four quid and almost seven times the price that Al-Hilal charge. I’ve no idea why there’s such a difference but I dare say I’ll find out before long.

There were a lot of people milling around outside, perhaps equally baffled by the pricing. My ticket was in the open area opposite where I’d been sat the previous week. The segregation policy wasn’t enforced as there were a few women and kids in my section. The opposition, Al-Ittihad, had brought a decent away following and had a section at the other end of the ground. The ground was still only a quarter or so full though, with just under six and a half thousand fans in the twenty-odd thousand capacity stadium.

There was a bit of a scuffle near me in the first half, with a couple of blokes giving each other a slap. That’s actual slaps with a flat palm to the face. It turns out that there were a few away fans in our section and they were making their allegiance obvious. I don’t know why they didn’t just sit in the empty areas near to their allocated section, rather than plonking themselves in the middle of the seats occupied by the more vocal Al-Shabab supporters. The stewards did their best but were ignored and it took the arrival of a copper to restore order and lead the slappers to an exit.

I got chatting to Ahmed, who was a supporter of Al-Hilal and Arsenal, but like me was just keen to watch a game. He seemed surprised that I only followed the Boro and that I didn’t have a Premier League side as well. I was tempted to mention that I’d been looking out for Bournemouth’s results this season in the hope that Tav was doing well in his post-Boro career, but thought that would just make me look even odder.

Al-Shabab took the lead from a penalty on twenty minutes, but Al-Ittihad equalized soon after with a scrambled effort that they seemed to be doing their best to miss. The score stayed that way and with both the teams fighting it out with Al-Hilal in the top four, Ahmed was happy to see them both drop points.

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

January 20, 2023

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.