Since moving to the UAE I have watched the development of the Arabian Gulf League with interest. When I arrived it was a league that was aspiring to be something much better than it was. They were desperate to make the league a credible league, not a backwater where aging stars come to pick up a paycheck then retire or players see as a quick way to make a buck and move on. Certainly there is no shortage of money here and the bigger clubs are not shy at paying a transfer fee or delivering the wages these journeyman players clamour for.
Another struggle has seemed to be getting people to attend. The crowds tend to be no great shakes, the grounds, other than the new stadium in Al Ain, tend to be aging and more akin to First and Second Division in England and there seems to be little attempt to connect to the expat football fans who could, and I am sure would, be persuaded to become regulars if a connection to a side could be made. I‘ve tried in the past to rally other fans to games and been met with apathy and in spite for some time living within walking distance of Emirates Club’s ground in Ras al Khaimah I was never able to even get tickets and nor was I really encouraged or helped when I did try, instead feeling almost mocked as the crazy white guy that wanted to go to the game.
However I’m a persistent sort and by chance have been lucky enough to get to know former Newcastle captain Roy Aitken. Roy is a true gent and is now Sporting Director at Al Ahli Club here in Dubai. Roy is not the only Newcastle connection at Al Ahli. Until recently this was the home of Hugo Viana and it was the club that nearly signed Papiss Cisse last January (and believe me they were minutes away from doing so). Roy has been generous enough to offer me tickets on a number of occasions but I’ve never been able to make the gaps in my diary fit. Until that is Al Ahli found themselves in the semi-finals of the Asian Champions League and when Roy called I simply had to get to experience this.
The Asian Champions League has been seen as a real prize for UAE clubs. Al Ain, former stomping ground of Asamoah Gyan, are the only Emirati club to have won it in 2003 when frankly it was a much easier competition to win. Now with powerhouse clubs from China, Japan, Saudi and Qatar in the mix and the recent inclusion of Australian A League clubs it is a much harder and in my opinion more prestigious trophy to tilt at. The opposition was Al Hilal of Saudi Arabia. The “Blue Waves” of Riyadh represented a tough draw. Asian team of 20th Century according to some with their current side providing most of the Saudi national team and with a couple of Brazilians scattered into the mix. The first leg was a tight, terse affair with a poor referee who missed a couple of good penalty claims either way. Al Ahli managed to take a credible draw with their own Brazilian, Lima, grabbing a crucial away goal. Lima has been tearing up all competitions this season at almost a goal a game and he has been a real glamour signing from Benfica.
So with the tie on a knife edge the second leg was set to be a hell of a game. “Get to the ground early” said Roy, “I’ll meet you at the gates with your tickets. They won’t let you in I’ll have to come and get you” He wasn’t wrong. I went along with Mo Anabtawi, chair of the Manchester United Supporters Association here in the UAE (no he’s not from Manchester, he’s from the Lebanon. But he does have an amazingly believable Mancunian accent having spent a lot of time there and having a former Mancunian partner. Lebanese are surprisingly adaptable like that). Sadly due to Dubai traffic (we should have thought) getting there early was not an option. So once parked we got to scenes I haven’t seen in person for a long time, a sea of blue scarves of the Al Hilal fans being escorted by mounted police with kids in the red of Al Ahli darting around, hurling Arabic insults and generally getting radgey. Make no mistake this was proper football. The chants may be in Arabic, as is the dress and in the UK it’s mainly the players and not the fans that arrive in Ferraris, Lamborghinis and Rolls Royces but this had all the feeling of a big game with a bit of needle and regional pride.
True enough Roy was right, we didn’t get in, even with Mo explaining in Arabic to the lads on the gates who we were and who we were meeting. One call to Roy and he appeared, a told you so kind of grin on his face, and we were swiftly escorted through to his office. We weren’t the only ones. Recent signing Moussa Sow, ineligible for this game as he was signed too late, wasn’t let in either. Roy had to go and rescue him before he was swamped by fans or had the wing mirrors pulled off his Bentley.
Roy gave us the tickets and after a canny chat about signings, the Sheikh having the banks opened for him on a Friday so he could sign Lima, where he thought Cisse would go, some interesting insights on the calibre of players they are now aiming for and what was going on back at NUFC he had to get back to work. He left us with one last piece of advice. “It’s heaving. They’ve been coming in since 4 this afternoon. There’s been a problem with duplicate tickets and forgeries and Hilal were supposed to bring 1000, they’ve brought 5000. So when you get to the VIP entrance just push your way in, they’ll tell you they’re full.”
So tickets in hand we wander out of his office into the throng of the crowd. Heaving it was! Again what struck me was this was a REAL game with real fans and a real edgy atmosphere. The chanting continued and atmosphere built but then, and typical of the region, silence as the call to Maghrib prayer echoed out of the stadium mosque. The respect, the discipline and the almost comforting familiarity of the Adhan is something that will long remain with me whether I remain in the part of the world or not. The power to bring a football crowd to order amazing in many ways.
Once over the silence was literally shattered with the haunting sound of an air raid siren played from under the stand. “They do this, apparently” was Mo’s comment while I searched for my brown trousers. Then it really got mental. We made our way, pushing through the crowd, to the now padlocked (yes, padlocked) gates of the VIP entrance. We weren’t getting in anywhere. And like any full ground there were kids trying to climb in, blag their way in, squeeze through gaps. Anything to get a glimpse of their heroes. “Try the other entrances” we were told. No joy. So this was where we went old school meets new school.
Not wanting to miss out on the atmosphere we got to the side gates and pushed to the front. We could see half the pitch. Been a while but that’ll do. No wonder we didn’t get in. The sea of blue we could see was way more than 1000. There were lads hanging over the edge of the top of the stand, clinging to poles and posts wherever they could. The capacity of the ground is 9800. The official AFC report says the attendance was 9800. There must have been 12000 or more in there with another 2000 padlocked outside. Mental. So with a view of half the pitch and the rest of the coverage on Mo’s BeIn sports mobile app the game kicked off and I felt like a 12 year old again.
The first half seemed to pass in no time. It started like a train and in what felt like a heartbeat Lima had the home fans in raptures tapping-in from Ahmed Khalil’s pinpoint cross on 17 minutes. And boy did they celebrate inside and outside the ground. The drums and zithers had barely stopped and as half time approached fellow Brazilian Ribeiro then cleverly broke the offside trap to lob over onrushing goalkeeper Abdullah Al Sedairy to make it 2-0. 3-1 on aggregate, surely the Red Knights were home and dry? Many Al Hilal fans thought so, the Blue Wave streaming out of the ground at half time like a tsunami. Al Hilal til half time it seems.
This was our chance. We were in! Hot, humid, sweaty with the unmistakable scent of oud thick in the air. The Emirati equivalent of getting in for the last 10 minutes when the gates opened at the Gallowgate Corner. The ground was literally rocking. Old Trafford in 1999 sprung to mind. With padlocks and over filling so did Hillsborough. But I didn’t care, this was a magical experience.
But the second half brought a fight back. Al Hilal showed why they were rated and indeed are a class act. They hit back and hit back hard with their own Brazilian double act; Ailton Almeida’s fine turn and finish six minutes into the second half and then Carlos Eduardo’s unstoppable shot from range 13 minutes later saw them level on the night, and now ahead on away goals. However it wasn’t to end there and an unlikely hero was to emerge.
Once up on away goals Al Hilal made the often fatal error of sitting back. I’m sure had they kept at Al Ahli they’d have scored again. But they didn’t, they rearranged and sat deep, let Al Ahli come at them and press. And it nearly worked, With the clock deep in the fourth minute of five added on Everton Ribeiro swung in a hopeful free kick, the ball ricocheted off bodies, dropped to Al Ahli centre back Kwon and the South Korean somehow forced it home, via a beautiful and suitably crazy deflection. BEDLAM!
And so the night ended. Sweaty, emotionally drained, partially deaf and hairs on my arms still standing up I got back to the car and much needed air con. A quick message to Roy to thank him for an amazing experience, one I will definitely repeat, and I was off home, contemplating what the final would bring. Sadly a work clash meant I couldn’t make the home leg against Luiz Philip Scolari’s Guangzhou Evergrande of China that ended in a goalless draw. The Red Knights lost the away leg in China by a single goal and their dreams were dashed. But they gained a fan in me that night and the next time Roy calls I’ll be there. And I heartily recommend it.