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Postcard From Saudi Arabia – The Beautiful Game, Saudi-Style

November 2, 2014


Saudi Arabia is in mourning today. Well, not all of it – but certainly a goodly proportion. The reason? Last night Al-Hilal, the pride of Riyadh, narrowly failed to win the Asian Champions League in front of 70,000 passionate fans at the King Fahd Stadium in the nation’s capital.

Yes, I’m talking about football of course. The Saudis love football. As much as the Brazilians, the Germans and probably even the English. But like the English of late, and unlike the other two, they rarely have much to shout about when their club teams compete on the international stage. And the national team haven’t shined for a while either.

Which was why last night’s match was such a big deal. Hilal were up against Australian side Western Sydney Wanderers. They had lost the first leg in Sydney by a single goal, so hopes were high. Even in Al-Hasa on the east coast, where I am for a couple of days, interest was feverish. My hotel had arranged a soccer’n’shisha event on the terrace restaurant for Hilal fans to watch the match in the open air. 35 riyals ($10) and all the shisha you can smoke. It was packed, even though someone assured me that half of the people were rooting for the Aussies, so much did they dislike the team from Riyadh.

Sounds familiar? Think of the local rivalries in the UK, where Liverpool fans could never bring themselves to support Manchester United in Europe, and where the Scots would always back whatever opposition the England team might face.

In Saudi Arabia, the equivalent of the Liverpool-Manchester United relationship is between Hilal and Al-Ahli of Jeddah, the country’s second city. And United’s rivalry with their noisy neighbours Manchester City has its equal in the battle for Riyadh’s bragging rights between Hilal and Al Nasr, who actually won the national championship last year.

Thus far all that I have described would sound familiar to the European soccer fan, especially as Hilal were held to a goalless draw, and the home fans felt robbed by four penalty decisions that didn’t go their way.

But what would not be so familiar was the absence of female fans in the stadium. They are not allowed. The authorities apparently also refused entry to any fans wearing the colours of any other Saudi team for fear of unseemly behaviour. Not the kind of pitched battles that used to erupt in English matches, you understand. Insults hurled back and forth are a no-no.

It’s also rather difficult for fans of the away team in international matches to get to games in the Kingdom. I’m reliably informed that apart from a smattering of Aussie expatriates, a mere 13 Wanderers fans actually made it to the match. The fact that getting a visit visa to Saudi Arabia is far from a formality, combined with the cost of a flight from Sydney for a single purpose might explain the paucity of opposition fans. But no grand European occasion, such as the European Champions League final, would take place without huge contingents of fans from both sides.

While in Europe there’s a large body of opinion that modern top-flight football is played by ludicrously over-paid spoilt brats, and that the international game is presided over by a secretive and deeply corrupt organisation – FIFA – the Saudis have to contend with different kinds of critics of the national game. Every so often, one of the deeply conservative clerics pops up to denounce football as haram – in other words against the principles of Islam. You can read about an example of their attitude in an earlier post.

But although the pronouncements of the religious conservatives are taken very seriously in other areas – it’s largely thanks to their opposition that women are not allowed to drive, for example – I suspect that this is one argument the conservatives would never win. In fact I have a feeling that many Saudis would rather lose the disapproving clerics before they would give up on their beloved game. Anyone who witnessed, as I did, the joyous street celebrations in the 80’s when the national team made it to the World Cup finals would be convinced of that.

Looking forward, expect the Saudis to make strenuous efforts to qualify for the 2022 World Cup tournament in neighbouring Qatar. And whether or not they succeed, there will be a vast throng of fans making use of the chance of a lifetime – to witness a World Cup in a country just a hop across the border.

If they do fail, expect the disappointment that followed Hilal’s goalless draw against the Aussies last night to pale into insignificance compared with the weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth that would take place at the prospect of little Qatar lording it over world football without a Saudi presence on the pitch. Quite unthinkable.

Watching the Saudis go crazy about a football match provides a counterpoint to all the controversy about the Qatar tournament. Whatever shenanigans may or may not have taken place that resulted in the Qataris winning the battle to host the tournament, the fact remains that all across the Arabian peninsula there is a deep and widespread love of the game. I for one would hate to see the fans in this region denied their day in the spotlight, whatever difficulties the hosts might encounter in staging the tournament.

Football, after all, should be about the fans, and there are plenty of them around here who can’t wait for 2022 to arrive.

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