You know you’re bored at a football match when you start delving into the slow demise of Stockport County from the Championship to the depths of the Skrill Conference North. Struggling with the intense humidity and total lack of action 30 minutes in to the 2013 Arabian Gulf Super Cup between Al Ain and Al Ahli, I was contemplating giving up and calling it a night.
As if from a divine source, a plastic hand fan (a generous gesture by Al Ahli, given out to combat the hostile weather – Sepp Blatter, FIFA, Qatar etc take note) hurled into the night air from the upper tier of the Mohammed Bin Zayed Stadium walloped into the back of my head, snapping me back into the harsh reality of where I was. I surely couldn’t leave before half time? I may not have been able to anyway – I had driven to Abu Dhabi at an average speed of 160km/h, illegally parked and jaywalked across the street to make it to the ground on time, having left Dubai at 6:45 PM. I had convinced myself that the authorities were surely searching the crowd for me.
The unforgiving heat was clearly making me delusional. It may have been the reason why the ground was only just over half full, and why I was gleefully ushered through the gates despite not having a ticket. It did not explain, however, why the majority of the Al Ahli fans were made up of 8-year-old children, supervised and led into chants by a giant, red-bearded Urdu-speaking gentleman with his back to the game the entire time. European-style ultras they were not.
It was evident as early as the 30th minute that the weather conditions and lack of competitive action since May had taken its toll on the players. Luis Jimenez, ever Al Ahli’s competitive midfield lynchpin, seemed content to stroll around the void present between the centre circle and 18-yard box, only pausing to receive and subsequently lose the ball time and time again. Al Ain’s Omar Abdulrahman’s luminous orange Hypervenom boots that he had spent the last few months proudly launching in the UAE did little to give him any competitive edge over the porous Al Ahli defence. The only player who seemed awake and eager to break into anything more than a jog was Al Ahli’s Ismail Hammadi, who terrorized the opposing full backs down the wing throughout but crucially lacked any composure after breaking into the box time and time again.
I convinced myself that the second half could only get better as I sipped on a lukewarm beaker of water that I had salvaged from a baying mob of fans at a nondescript food kiosk. This newfound hope nearly paid dividends when the new Al Ahli signing Ciel twice tested Khalid Eissa in goal, but I was left wanting for a ball to strike the back of the net. I must admit I felt more schadenfreud than shame when Majed Hassan clattered into the back of Abdulrahman with ten minutes to go. It was great seeing 12,000 previously subdued Al Ain supporters scream howls of derision at the awful challenge. As the referee blew for full time with the score at 0-0, it seemed inevitable that Al Ahli would surely capitulate, being down to ten men in extra time.
Except that there was no extra time. Majed Nasser and Khalid Eissa duly took their places in goal to face 5 penalties each, the former saving two spot kicks in spectacular fashion to win the cup for Al Ahli, celebrating with a Nani-esque back flip right in front of me. I certainly wasn’t hanging around for the trophy presentation though – I had traffic to beat. Escaping the heat of the stadium to find my car without a ticket pinned to the dashboard felt like a godsend.
Overall, a dire 0-0 draw was brought to life by an entertaining penalty shootout that led to Al Ahli being crowned the Arabian Gulf Super Cup champions for 2013. This was anything but an advert for the upcoming league contest – keep in mind that last season’s league meeting between the two sides finished in a 6-3 thriller. This time around, Al Ain seemed to be still adapting to their new 3-5-2 layout, the brainchild of new coach Jorge Fossati. Their marquee signing Michel Bastos looked out of place in centre midfield and we can undoubtedly expect more from the fearsome attacking duo of Omar Abdulrahman and Gyan Asamoah once the season gets going. Al Ahli’s new signings of Ciel and Hugo Viana will still need time to gel, and both should benefit from the live-wire Ismail Hammadi down the flanks. Cooler weather coupled with increased fitness levels should see both sides flying out of the blocks come the mid-September commencement of the league.