You know that time when you realise you are going to be travelling and you have a quick check to see what games are on so you do a search only to find out that the Saudi Arabian Super Cup is being played and then you wet yourself. Urine everywhere. I joke. That happened to me a few weeks ago (to be clear I did not wet myself) when it dawned on me that a trip to the UK coincided with Al Hilal vs Al Ahli at Craven Cottage. To be honest, it makes no sense. Zero sense. But as I sat there with my legs jiggling in excitement, I did not care. The GBP 35 cheapest ticket price tag combined with the wholly expected booze ban was a bit of a blow though.
I have been to Craven Cottage before when I was a London resident living just down river in Wandsworth and if I enjoy this time as much I did watching Fulham beat CSKA Sofia here in 2009, then I am for a great game. Craven Cottage is a cracker of a stadium wedged between a park and the River Thames.
I think these pictures are too small.
Why is the Saudi Super Cup taking place in West London? This is a good question. It is the second year that the curtain raiser to the Saudi season comes to town with last year’s game taking place just up the road at Loftus Road. I can only assume that a) it offers greater reward to the participants (rather than a trip to Riyadh) and b) provides the Saudi football supporting community of London and environs to watch their heroes in action. Which leads to the follow-up question as to how many people make up the Saudi football supporting community of London and environs? I suppose there will also be a few interested locals (and a British expat living in Denmark) who will fork out for a ticket. This year’s participants were Al-Hilal (from Riyadh) playing Al-Ahli (from Jeddah).
I was spending the day out in Berkshire so had to make my excuses and hop on a train into town a little bit earlier than my usual clocking off time before settling into a watering establishment in leafy Putney (leafy used in reference to a part of a city that is stupidly expensive, and has a park not full of crackheads).
Al-Hilal supporter even after the sun goes down.
I was really looking forward to seeing the Michael Jackson statue that stands outside Craven Cottage erected by former owner, Mohammed Al-Fayed. Alas, it transpired that the statue was removed under new owner and relocated to the National Football Museum in Manchester. Al-Fayed blamed the statue’s removal on the club’s relegation from the Premier League. This makes absolute sense. Poorly designed statues of an individual was openly filmed holding hands and discussing sleeping arrangements with a young boy (I think I am legally protected on this one) are considered lucky in many culture.
On approaching the lovely old stadium on the bank of the Thames, it quickly became apparent that this would be no normal game. Souvenirs scarves were on sale for GBP 5. One suspects the demand for Saudi Super Cup special, Al Hilal scarves is limited in this part of the world after the game. The smell of Oud permeated the air along with a thick fug of cigarette smoke. My mind travelled back to the days I had spent in Bahrain. To put it bluntly, among the 16,000 or so that made their way into the ground we were among the small group of non-Saudis. The ground staff were well prepared asking us “Haqiba” as we walked through security before realizing we had no idea what on Earth, they were chatting about and requesting to look in our bag. Beer was a no go for obvious reasons, but passive smoking pacified my need body destroying carcocgens. No Smoking signs mean nothing in Saudi.
We rolled that disregard for rules plonking ourselves where we chose. I waved the flag that had been handed to me by a small child outside the stadium. I assume he had handed it to me. Although now I think about it maybe I stole a flag from a child, which probably makes me a bad person. Did not hold his hand though. Despite my poor character traits, people wanted to take pictures of the local wearing the Al Hilal clobber. I reckon my picture is circling around the Ultras websites in Saudi and I will be due a kicking if I ever make an away tip with the Hilal Hools (the crazed Copenhagen basis Al Hilal supporter group that I have just created.
The atmosphere was different. Surprisingly (perhaps showing my cultural naivety), there was higher percentage of women than you would find at an English game and also a higher number of children. That higher percentage of women seemed to be particularly fond of ear piercing screams whenever the ball went near the goal. Luckily I am half deaf and made use of the mute function on my new hearing aid (I have become bionic).
The game was pretty good. The players were clearly technically able and the game was played at a high tempo that may be due to the relative chill of 17 degrees (versus the 35 one would expect in Riyadh). Finishing was not great (probably put off by the screaming), but the game was open and competivite for what was a glorified pre-season friendly (maybe in my eyes only). The teams went in at 0-0.
We took a wander. The queues for the toilet was odd. The urinals were spurned in favour of the cubicles. But with only two cubicles available, it looked like the female toilet queue at a Robbie Williams concert (women still love him right?). I assume some cultural aversion to urinals was at play rather than a sad indictment on the quality of catering at Craven ´Chicken´ Cottage. (Further subsequent research has clarified that the Prophet always sat down whilst relieving himself. So hopefully, my use of the urinal was not offensive. If so, sorry, I do not mean any disrespect.)
Second half was continuation of the same with more screaming and high paced football. There seemed to be some Saudi stars circling the pitch, which led to more screaming.
Give this to a Chelsea fan. They love their plastic flags.
The first goal came when Mohammed Al-Braik smashed in a free kick at the Putney End to put Al-Hilal one up. I was going to win the cup. Having been an Al-Hilal fan for about an hour now, I knew it was my time. Our time to for glory. But my glory was short lived. Seven minutes later a defensive slip saw the ball drop to Al Ahli’s forward a mere six yards out to smash home and poor petrol on my dreams.
But all was not lost. Actually all was lost. A cool breeze had developed and we were severely underdressed, tired and hungry to cope with a further 30 minutes of football that awaited us. Wikipedia told us that the Saudi Super Cup would go to extra time. Wikipedia was wrong. The first sign was the loud cheers that arose from the stadium every 30 seconds or so signaling that straight to penalties was the order of the day. But it did not matter, Al Hilal lost despite taking an early lead in the shootout. IT could have been my second penalty shoot out in a month.
In summary, a thoroughly enjoyable visit. A totally different atmosphere to anything I have experienced before. The passion is undeniable, the quality is ok. I may never see Saudi football again, but probably not because I would not want to.
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