There are few taxis in Al Hofuf. Those that do appear tend to fire past you with a look of repulsion in their eyes. It was a Friday evening in the mid size desert oasis town and we were standing by the side of the road. Nabeel threw out an arm, and within seconds a white Toyota truck came to a halt next to us. The briefest of negotiations took place and we all climbed in.
Twenty minutes later the stadium appeared through the buildings and the car came to a hasty stop. We each paid the agreed 5 Rial (£1) and walked through the security area, without any security to secure it. Then around the eccentric grass circle in front of the stadium, with lush padded turf, that completely defied logic considering we were in a desert – and past the abundance of flag poles, with only one flag fluttering in the sleepy air. The players began to arrive, and parked their expensive looking cars directly in front of the stadium, in what would have been handicapped parking anywhere else in the world. We made tentative inquiries about buying a ticket, and received a few half hearted shrugs and quizzical looks.
It appeared the sole man selling tickets had not arrived yet, despite kick off being only forty five minutes away.
Undeterred by such a minor inconvenience, we walked slowly into the stadium, and managed to find somewhere to sit among the 10,000 empty seats.
A few minutes later the players emerged and began to go through what can only be described as a lethargic warm-up. The temperature hovered around that point where it’s best to do things slowly. It was also the last game of the season with neither side having anything to play for – so I will give them the benefit of the doubt. The evening prayer suddenly boomed out from the stadium speakers. I doubt if I will have a more surreal football experience anytime in my life.
Minutes before kick off the crowds poured in. The official attendance for the match was 266 – but I believe that included the players, coaching staff – and every non directly football related individual – possibly even the man across the road running the small tea shop. Twenty of so ball boys – who were most definitely grown men wearing boiler suits – scampered eagerly after every loose ball. Each completely empty seating block was assigned its own policeman, who did an admirable job of not looking bored. For a town of over 100,000 – it was a little sad.
For those whose knowledge of the Saudi Arabian Premier League is a little hazy – a little information. Fourteen teams contested the season, which was won by Al Nassr – a team from Jeddah. Al Fatah, the home side this evening were comfortably settled in 6th. Al Orubah, the away side, had been relegated.
What could have been an eerie experience in an empty stadium was thankfully saved by the tannoy system blaring out what I will dub as belligerent Arabic/Indian traditional trance music. I will not elaborate further, just use your imagination.
The first half slipped past without much to speak of except a solitary goal for the home side. It wasn’t necessarily terrible, but not entirely enjoyable either. A little like eating asparagus while watching a game a golf – not terrible, not enjoyable
The half time refreshments were supplied by dominoes pizza, as a second call to prayer hummed in the air.
Whatever was given out for half time refreshment in both dressing rooms, produced a second half more reminiscent of a lunch time school yard game. A frenzied and hugely enjoyable forty five minutes followed, where quite unbelievably, neither team managed to add to the game’s solitary goal. Both goalkeepers hurled themselves back and forth, repelling all that came their way. The away side were denied what looked like a clear penalty in the closing minutes. Their manager erupted and began hurling abuse at anybody that would listen. He was subsequently sent off – which involved him comically ambling around unsure where to go.
The game ended – Al Fatah had won. The crowd murmured slightly in appreciation then filed orderly out of the stadium – the season was over.