Football comes home: This week in Middle East football
Saudi club Al-Hilal Riyadh managed to grab their first title this season, after winning the Saudi Super Cup with a 2-1 victory over arch-rivals Ittihad Jeddah on Saturday evening at Loftus Road Stadium, home of London club Queens Park Rangers (QPR).
It is the third time that Saudi Super Cup games have taken place in the UK capital, with Loftus Road the venue in 2015 and Craven Cottage in 2016.
The idea of holding the match in London first came about due to the popularity of Saudi teams among the city’s large Middle Eastern community, with the hope it would help Saudi Arabia win new football fans in Europe.
This year, though, the event helped promote a positive image of the Gulf kingdom, particularly after some radical changes that have been witnessed in the country lately.
The match was the first act of the Saudi football season, and aside from the fact the game featured the kingdom’s traditional rivalry between its two biggest clubs – Ittihad and Al-Hilal – but there were a few other interesting talking points.
Ittihad’s coach, Ramon Diaz, is a former al-Hilal manager and the man who brought the Riyadh-based club the Saudi title after four long years wait, and saw them into the Asian Champions League final.
Diaz was sacked by Al-Hilal last season after a series of bad results, and he met his former players again in London.
On the other side, it was also Portuguese mastermind Jorge Jesus’ first official match as al-Hilal coach.
Most important of all for the fans in London, it was Omar “Amoory” Abdulrahman’s debut in an Al-Hilal shirt.
Amoory looked set for a European club this summer after finishing his contract with the UAE’s Al-Ain, but eventually found his spot at the club he grew up with, as kid of Yemeni descent living in Riyadh.
The Emirati star was Al-Hilal’s main target this summer, and the club’s President Sami Al-Jaber made huge efforts to convince him to join the side with a gigantic salary – 14 million Saudi rials ($3.7 million) for just one season – used to entice him.
A little less than 18,000 fans gathered at QPR’s home ground to see Brazilian Carlos Eduardo score the first goal for Hilal, after an uneventful first-half.
The Saudi champions from Riyadh put pressure on the cup winners from Jeddah, and in the second-half got their second goal through Venezuelan striker Gelmin Ribas.
Ittihad managed to pull one back with the Moroccan-Dutch marquee signing from Feyenoord – Kareem al-Ahmadi – but it wasn’t enough. The game ended 2-1, as Al-Hilal secured their first title in the new season.
It was Al-Hilal’s 58th title in the club’s history, as it became the all-time winner of the Saudi Super Cup since the start of the tournament in 2013.
Things are looking positive for the club under the leadership of Sami al-Jaber, Jorge Jesus and Amoory. Will they continue their winning run and complete a historical season? Time will tell.