Posts Tagged ‘Saudi Pro-League’

Al-Shabab v Al-Taawon, Saturday 27th May 2023, 9pm

May 30, 2023

This wasn’t the game that I’d hoped to be at on this date. I’d wanted to be at Wembley to see the Boro in the play-off final. Whilst I didn’t want to tempt fate prior to the play-off semi, I also didn’t want to discover too late that everything was sold out and so I’d booked flights, a hotel and a train ticket for Jen. Sadly, football doesn’t always work out as you want.

Instead, I was back at the Prince Faisal stadium for fourth placed Al-Shabab against fifth placed Al-Taawon. For a change I thought I’d go into the VIP section. At two hundred riyals a ticket it was twenty times more expensive than my usual seat, which is just the other side of a perspex screen. Two hundred riyals is forty-three quid and so it’s not overly expensive by football standards these days. It’s certainly cheaper than the Wembley ticket would have been.

The security guard at the entrance gate seemed a little surprised that I was meant to be there, as did the bloke checking the tickets at the main entrance. Perhaps I just don’t look ‘corporate’. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or not.

Once inside I was given a silver wristband and an Arabic coffee. One sip was enough to confirm that there’s a good reason why Starbucks don’t sell that stuff. The fella next to coffee guy was holding a container of hot coals and he wafted the smoke at me. Cheers Matey.

That was it for hospitality add-ons apart from frequent offers of tea and water during the game. I’d half expected a buffet or at least someone with a tray of chocolates, but maybe you needed a gold wristband for that sort of thing. As kick-off was only ten minutes away, I followed someone up some stairs to the main stand.

My designated padded seat was close to the half-way line and behind the dugouts. There were some tv screens showing the match on a ten second delay. That actually worked quite well, giving you the opportunity to check how much contact actually occurred whenever someone went down as if shot.

If I’d been a real VIP then I could have sat on one of the settees at the front. They were occupied by people who everyone seemed to know and whenever someone new turned up we had an elaborate fake kissing routine where the two blokes would touch cheeks three times. That’s face cheeks, in case you were wondering. They would then pause slightly before going back for one more.

Al-Taawon went a goal up about half an hour in and at which point I realized that almost everyone in my section was an away fan. At half-time I wandered inside in the forlorn hope that it might be a bit like the old Ayresome Park Hundred Club and that there would be a table with plates of quartered pork pies. No such luck though.

In the second half Al-Taawon rattled in two more goals for a three-nil win. I don’t think the experience was worth twenty times the usual price, particularly as in my usual section I’d have been able to buy a Kit-kat. It’s always good to try something different though.

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-Nassr v Al-Khaleej, Monday 8th May 2023, 7pm

May 21, 2023

So many of the games here seem to start around 9pm. That’s understandable given the heat, but it makes for a very late evening, particularly when there’s a post-match taxi ride involved. This one had a much more sociable kick-off time of 7pm, although the trade-off was the forty degree heat. The initial ticket frenzy that had greeted Ronaldo’s arrival had long gone and so despite some rush hour traffic I was able to get to the Mrsool Stadium in about forty minutes.

My season ticket entitles me to enter by a gate without a body scanner and avoid being searched. As you can buy diet coke inside the stadium it’s a notional benefit only, but I like the idea that if you have a season ticket you can be trusted not to bring anything untoward into the ground with you.

Mind you, I don’t obey all of the stadium rules. I was walking around the concourse and noticed that one of the stairways had no stewards checking tickets. I’m always interested in watching games from different viewpoints and so I made my way in and found a seat in a fairly empty section. I was at the other end of the ground to where I normally sit, high up behind a small group of around sixty away fans who had taken up positions down at the front.

The fixture was more meaningful than some I’ve been to recently. League leaders Al-Ittihad had lost their last match and so a home win would allow Al-Nassr to draw level with them at the top, albeit having played a game more. Visitors Al-Khaleej were third from bottom with just two points separating them from the two-team relegation zone. Even a point would be a great outcome for them.

Al-Khaleej made an early impact, clattering Ronaldo in the opening moments and then going a goal up after only three minutes.

Al-Nassr equalized on the quarter hour but rarely played with any conviction. Al-Khaleej’s timewasting stopped them getting into any sort of rhythm and Ronaldo got more and more pissed off as the evening went on. He had a couple of efforts disallowed and even nine minutes of added time at the end wasn’t sufficient for them to nick a win.

The away fans in front of me celebrated their point, which may very well be vital come the end of the season, whilst the two points dropped meant that most Al-Nassr fans were on their way home long before the players had left the pitch.

Al-Shabab v Al-Fateh, Wednesday 3rd May 2023, 9.30pm

May 20, 2023

This was a fairly meaningless end of season fixture. Al-Shabab were in third place in the table but nine points behind leaders Al-Ittihad and the games remaining were quickly running out. There’s only one Champions League spot available, although I suppose if second placed Al-Nassr imploded then Al-Shabab might qualify for the next level down Asian competition. Visitors Al-Fateh were fifth but well adrift from the top four.

The walk to the Prince Faisal bin Fahd ground took me around the perimeter of King Abdullah Park. There’s a significant cat population in the area and they are well fed by the locals. I saw one woman dragging what looked like a fifteen-kilogram bag of food about with her. There are always plenty of kittens too and with no pressure on any of them to catch their own dinner I imagine a far larger proportion of them reach adulthood than in other areas of town.

I passed the ticket office on the way around to my entrance gate and noticed that it was open. There were three fellas inside and they had printed tickets on A4 paper presumably prepared ready for people who were struggling to buy online.

I’d already sorted my seat and for a very reasonably ten riyals, which equated to two pounds and eighteen pence. I was in Block 201 which was formerly the family area and is in the covered stand, right next to the VIP section. There was a Perspex screen to make sure that I didn’t stray into the posh bit. Despite the bargain ticket price there was a very small crowd, probably in the hundreds rather than thousands. I didn’t see any away fans but it’s a three-hour drive from Al-Hasa and with such a late kick-off I doubt many would have fancied that sort of round trip.

I hadn’t been too sure about attending either. Partly because it wouldn’t finish until getting on for half past eleven, but mainly because I’ve just started watching the Get Back documentary. It’s an astonishingly good piece of work and looks like it could have been filmed yesterday rather than fifty-odd years ago. I’d happily watch the full sixty hours of footage if it’s ever made available. In the end though I decided that I could eke it out and go to the match instead.

The game was half-paced with little urgency. Neither team put much venom into their shots or tackles and it had nil-nil written all over it. One decent effort was always likely to be enough and a well-taken Al-Shabab free-kick early in the second half was enough to seal the win.

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.

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.