The time is currently 3:21am in Dubai and I have been staying at the Meydan Hotel (the longest building in the world). I’ve been up since 2:30am and it’s not because of the “sensations” dance party held by motor car company Audi and it’s also not because I have to be up to go to the Airport for the trip to Riyadh (as I packed the night before) – I’m up because it’s game day. Not just any game day – the Asian Champions League Final. The feeling is like no other – it feels right, it gets you excited and makes you walk with a bit more character and confidence and today is a time when it is required more than any other game day as it is the most important game we have played in our short club’s life.
If the people in Dubai are anything to go by in terms of Middle East hospitality then I can’t wait to be in Riyadh – the people here are wonderful and go out of their way to help you. I’ve spent the last 24 hours in Dubai taking in the sights of this metropolis that is constantly being upgraded and being built per the details of dreams of Architects and Royalty alike – it truly is a sight to see. In terms of football over here – Al Ahli is the champion and they have enjoyed their first championship since 2009. I would love to see a match played over here as the passion of football runs deep in this country and the facilities set up by members of the Royal Family can be seen strewn over Dubai. I don’t believe there is a word for “small” or “ostentatious” in Arabic.
In terms of the travelling party so far, we haven’t been able to take our conversation away from the Wanderers. We seem to find a new topic of interest to talk about and it truly shows a deep background from various different angles. Ian “Dicko” Dickson is here with us for the ACL final and you know in the manner of how he speaks about the Wanderers that you understand what tonight’s final is all about. He demands attention when he says Asian Champions League is the pinnacle of our league and is a must win. He has a love for football and knowledge that many can only be envious. I, myself have been blown away by his support and what this means to him. Sometimes it’s easy to paint Ian in a certain light as a celebrity joining the bandwagon but this is certainly not the case – he is as passionate and proud as anyone who stands shoulder to shoulder and it has been an absolute privilege in getting to know him and his background and knowledge of our beautiful game.
Shaun Mielekamp, the Wanderers staff member in this trip has been fantastic as our guide and his passion for Western Sydney is ever present. His background of NRL should not be considered as a concern for the Wanderers as his true passion is delivering a community model for fans to be apart of and to be honest – as a Wanderers fan – I get that feeling, so something must be working!
When we arrive back in to the Dubai airport, we are given messages of good luck from those who oppose Al Hilal – it instantly creates an additional excitement level. Fans of Al Ittihad and Al Nasr are giving us best wishes! We meet an Al Hilal fan at the airport and share a photo together and a bit of banter about the upcoming encounter!
The flight to Riyadh was quite comfortable on the 777-300 rather than being crammed on the A380-800 that are used for the long stretches. Once we arrived, more Saudi Arabians engage with us on the way to the line for Customs. I think it’s fair to say due to the connotations with Saudi Arabia and the general feeling from those outside of KSA that we are all nervous. It isn’t till we approach customs and they notice our Wanderers gear that Customs officials show signs of support due to their allegiances not being Al Hilal. General jokes are made between us and customs officials and even one refusing to allow Shaun Mielekamp in due to his allegiance to WSW made in jest.
Writing this now and being here in Riyadh just puts a massive smile on my face. One of my first comments to Ian in the car transfer to our hotel is how fantastic it is to be in a ‘football country’. Upon meeting up with the earlier travelling party who made the trip straight to Riyadh bypassing Dubai, they can not speak highly enough of hospitality that Saudi Arabia has provided. One gentleman known affectionately as Mr Ali has chauffeured both Pablo and Luke around Riyadh all day showing the attractions and sights – their stories make me slightly jealous as I feel really inquisitive about this country. Soon I leave for the Souq (market place) and hopefully I will be able to visit the Al Hilal store on Al Tahliyah street so I can add another rare Jersey to the collection.
So we have returned from a comedy of errors. The Badr Souk is closed and there has been a miscommunication between the Radisson Blu Management and the Limo service, the thought crossing everyone’s mind is the 200 Riyals being ripped away from us as Dicko has graciously left that with them as a sign of good karma for this evenings match. David Gallop is also here and is staying at the same hotel for this evenings event. Media has been intense since we have arrived and I have learned that the exposure has reached Morocco already – to put it in to perspective – we had the media at the airport at 8:15am, we learned of Morocco’s coverage at 12:30pm. This is just one portion of the passion of football in this region – fans of Al Hilal have been covering their cars in support, sleeping on the side of the road in 31 degree Celsius heat waiting 10 hours in advance of the match – I have now been hearing they have been let in to the King Fahd Stadium:
This photo was found on Twitter by one ‘Hilali’ who has been in contact with me. This time is currently 2:51pm – as I type now – there are chants for what I believe is Prayer as it starts again at 3pm.
My overriding feeling about Riyadh so far is that I can’t believe I am actually here. I’m so used to seeing Middle East countries through TV screens and that when I visit the streets here, it feels make believe. They have ministries for their government services, it often reminds me of George Orwell’s 1984 in a way as each department is well guarded and they prefer that you do not take photos of these buildings. The resounding feeling amongst the fans here is that you almost gotta keep checking behind you and that is a trait I have been doing at times when I have travelled in private vehicles here. That being said – the people here are lovely and that should not be discounted on the account of what I have just mentioned.
At 3:45pm we will be provided with a police escort to the game with security detail in two cars. The reason we are leaving so early is due to the traffic as there is a lack of public transport as well as to be ready for any unexpected events. This is a very surreal experience but I don’t feel pressured by it, I still feel I can walk on the streets and be relatively safe. It’s hard to capture in to words what this place is like. One thing that I wish both Dubai and Riyadh would do in their hotels is to serve traditional Middle Eastern cuisine. It’s the one thing I have been looking forward too since I’ve come here and it’s just lacking completely.
So the travel to the stadium is nothing short of exciting – cars just strewn across highways like litter on a sidewalk. People surrounding the stadium as if it is the Sunday markets. People are resting on the side of streets in the open sun waiting patiently but excitedly for the game to start. As it turns out, the stadium is full at 5pm and even ticket holders can’t get in as such is the demand and excitement amongst Al Hilal fans causing them to climb fences and claim their place inside.
Their presence inside the stadium can be felt from back home as they are loud and raucous! They instantly get involved in waves of chants for their heroes who are about to adorn the blue to fight my beloved Wanderers. The Tifo is quite incredible – I have never seen anything like it and it is a credit to them. There is rumours the costs reached the 7 figure mark. As you can see below, it is truly a sight to be seen:
You can’t even hear the whistle blow and the game starts, it is a fiery exchange for 97 minutes and 40 seconds of some of the most heroic football I have seen our boys play. Ante Covic has set a spell around the goal box, an act that is forbidden in KSA but it is the only reasonable explanation for how he managed to keep the score level even. Ron Corry is a master and they both take accolades in their stride and neither are ones for the limelight.
The game finishes in a saliva sharing fracas that only features the worlds best designer handbags. Truly a disgusting sight and one that has earned Al Hilal fines and Nasser Al Shamrani a holiday for 6 games. The players approach and we prepare the war cry only reserved for winning matches “Who Do You Sing For?!?!” And despite the distance and the majority of the stadium exiting, it is well received and reciprocated in what is one of the best experiences of my life.
As soon as the celebrations and the knighting of the reigning Asian champions is over we are kindly given a tour of the Royal box and it is a sight to see, unfortunately, photos are not encouraged in this area but I did sneak a couple:
But our tour is cut short as our transport has arrived and a surprise awaits – we are visiting the Australian Embassy with the team to celebrate the traditional way on Australian Soil! We arrive to a lot of excitement and I personally, could not contain myself – Brendon Santalab was first through the doors and I couldn’t help but give him, as Iván would say “the hug of winning” (or words to that effect), hell I could have been the culprit for damaging Brendon’s shoulder, but I certainly hope not.
Tomi Juric as usual is the court jester and is the most charismatic of the lot with his shirt off, scarf around his head and even serving beers as if he ran the place and that night – he probably did. It was one of the most amazing experiences in my life and one that I could not help but say “once in a lifetime”.
I couldn’t help but start “we can’t hear Al Hilal sing” and it is well received as fans and players alike get involved to cap off what has been a fantastic evening.
I’ll be honest, it’s been nearly two weeks since I first left on the trip and the feeling has not sunk in that the Wanderers are Asian Champions, seeing club promotions and advertising in public domains and I still can’t believe it. It is one of the moments that stick with you for life and for that I am truly grateful.
The icing on the cake was seeing our brothers back home welcome us all back at the Airport – I couldn’t contain my excitement and security mentioned that they have never seen that many people for anyone before. I tried capturing the moment the best way I could and it was fantastic – seeing our boys walk out with the trophy in front of the fans was an experience to behold as well.
I strongly urge anyone reading to travel on trips such as this, they are fantastic value to you as a fan in more ways than just dollar value. I am looking to plan for the Japan/Korea legs when the new season of the ACL rolls around next year as unfortunately, Morocco in December is too much of a stretch. I sincerely hope you have enjoyed reading this as I’ve tried to demonstrate the feelings and experiences I had in the Middle East for those curious.
“This has been the best trip I’ve ever been on.”