Tales From The Arabian Peninsula

Chelsea vs. Al Hilal : 9 February 2022

Of the many irritants involved with my recent footballing past, nothing continually manages to annoy me more than the Chelsea chant “We’ve won it all” which is sung with gusto by thousands, some of whom should definitely know better. I roll my eyes every time I hear it. I am pretty sure I have never sung it. The fact of the matter is that due to our meek 0-1 loss to Corinthians in Yokohama in 2012, there was still one prize remaining for us to claim. In those days it was known as the World Club Championships. Earlier, when it was a one-game final between the South American and European Champions, it was known as the Inter-Continental Cup. Now, rebranded again, it is known as the FIFA World Club Cup.

After our win in Porto last May, we were presented with the chance to have another stab at it. I openly hoped for a return visit to Japan; I loved my time there in 2012, an almost perfect trip. We waited and waited. There were rumours of the United Arab Emirates, there were rumours of Las Vegas. Talk about one extreme to the another, eh? In December, it was decided that the delayed 2021 World Club Cup would take place in Abu Dhabi in February 2022.

My immediate response was this.

“I’m going.”

But then I became slightly side-tracked with my boycotting of the Qatar World Cup of 2022, and pondered whether it would be hypocritical for me to go to Abu Dhabi. All things considered, I decided that Abu Dhabi was “on.” Initially, a few friends seemed interested too. In the end it boiled down to PD and myself. On the face of it we are an unlikely pairing, as different as chalk and cheese – with me a very soft brie – but we are good friends and I began preparing a list of things that we needed to sort out.

But.

The worry of COVID19 tests, registration procedures, and the possibility of the pandemic flaring up again, and the risk of getting caught in Abu Dhabi, COVID-positive and thus forced to miss even more time off work ate away at me.

Heading into the last few days of 2021, I was still 50/50 about the whole damn thing.

Then the game dates were announced. Others began booking. I re-examined all the clutter that would get in the way of a trip to the Arabian Peninsula. The tests, the forms, the costs, the risks.

And then I did it. I booked our flights. We were on our way.

But did the stress, anxiety and worry disappear? No. Did they fuck.

However, with each passing week, things began to drop into place. I sought advice from a few good friends. Other friends sought advice from me, the fools.

The Alhosn App would haunt me for weeks.

Then at the Brighton game, I was aware that I was coming down with something unpleasant. It knocked me for six to be honest. I was off work for the best part of a week and I even missed the Tottenham league game, damn it. After the tests, it was found that I had been hit with a campylobacter infection. This, I have to admit, just got in the way of the last few things that I needed to do before the trip. These were a few dark days. It absolutely clouded my thinking and hindered my planning.

There was one last remaining worry too. We were off to Abu Dhabi on the first Monday in February. On the Saturday, we were set to play Plymouth Argyle in the FA Cup. Like a few people I know, I didn’t attend the game. I just couldn’t risk catching COVID again at Stamford Bridge. But I still spent the day in SW6.

It was one of the oddest days. Because Parky and PD still wanted to attend, I drove them up but then occupied myself for a few hours. I fancied a walk, rather than sitting in my car for three or four hours, and so I meandered down through the deserted streets of Fulham to Craven Cottage. I arrived at the Johnny Haynes statue bang on 12.30pm, just as the game was kicking-off at Stamford Bridge.

How odd did that feel? Oh, very odd.

There were a few bouquets, wreaths and cards on the gate in front of the cottage in memory of the Fulham fan who had recently died at a game there. One card was from a close relative. It brought a tear to my eye.

With the score at 1-1 on ninety minutes, the game at Stamford Bridge went to extra-time.

But we had other plans. In order to meet pre-flight requirements, I had arranged for PD and I to have PCR tests at Heathrow at 5pm. With that in mind, the lads had arranged to leave on ninety minutes even if extra-time was required. Bless them. Just before 3pm, they joined me in my car. Despite a little problem tracing PD’s registration for the test, both PCR tests were taken and the three of us returned home.

It was indeed, one of the oddest days. Good job we eventually won.

Driving home, I was heard to mutter “would love Luton away, before they move to their new stadium, never been to Kenilworth Road.”

On the Sunday morning, texts came through to both of us. We were both negative.

Get in.

I finished packing early on Monday morning and called for PD in Frome at 5am.

Rather than a flight from London, I had managed to save some money and fly from Manchester. The drive up went perfectly. I had parking booked from 9am. We arrived at 9.05am. There was a long wait to check in…always a nervous time, even in normal times, but our PCR tests were quickly glanced, our bookings reconfirmed, we were on our way. I spotted a few Chelsea fans that I knew in the line too. And, ominously, one Palmeiras fan.

I remembered the 25,000 Corinthians fans in Japan.

It was a lovely irony that we were setting off from City’s airport using their airline. It was even more delicious that other friends were setting off in a “Manchester City” liveried plane at Heathrow.

“Here’s what you could have won.”

The 12.35pm flight was delayed an hour. With the inherent four-hour time difference, we touched down at Abu Dhabi airport at around 12.30am in the small hours of Tuesday.

Glenn and I had spent a few hours in the same terminal building en route to watch Chelsea play in Australia in 2018. Who could have thought that I’d be returning to see us play in the desert in 2022? This almost mirrored my movements in 2012 and 2017. In 2012, I transited in Beijing en route to the 2012 games in Japan. Yet in 2017, I exited the Beijing airport to see us play Arsenal at the Bird’s Nest Stadium in 2017.

Funny game, football.

On arrival at the airport, we were ushered into a PCR testing area. It was all very simple and straight forward. I was impressed. We then caught a £20 cab over to our hotel, a journey that took half-an-hour. The impressive Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque was floodlit as we drove past, certainly an impressive sight.

The “day one” story did not come to a clean and simple ending unfortunately. We arrived at our hotel a few blocks from Abu Dhabi’s beach at around 2am. The hotel had not noted my late arrival – although I had an email to say they had – and so only had us staying for five and not six nights. After six or seven calls to other hotels, the concierge managed to get us in for one night at a lovely five-star hotel.

Phew.

At 3am, we fell asleep.

We woke to see that the infamous Alhosn App had been updated with our two negative test results.

Such relief.

This now cleared us for the game on Wednesday.

The Tuesday was spent relaxing at our original hotel. The management had upgraded us to a lovely suite on the fifteenth floor with a room each. Our rooftop pool was perfect and Paul wasted no time in soaking up some rays.

The view from the terrace summed up Abu Dhabi; white bricked houses and homes, mosques and minarets, high-rise apartments, sky scrapers in a business district on the horizon, the gulf and some man made islands too. We had a brief excursion to see the local beach. Our route took us past three or four expensive car dealerships; Bentley, Lotus and the like. But, like China, there were no advertisement hoardings anywhere. Acres of steel and glass, a modern city, but one that need seem so alien to me. I’d need a month to work it out.

There was a “Fado” Irish pub in our hotel and on the Tuesday night we met up with Della and Mick from Kent before Mike and Frank, veterans from Japan in 2012, strolled in at about 10pm. There were a group of around eight Chelsea fans I semi-recognised at another table. The two ladies of the night soon disappeared due to the lack of interest being directed at them. Pints of Peroni were at the £9 mark. Ouch.

“Another Peroni please.”

Tons of Chelsea stories, tons of Chelsea laughs. It was a great night.

Not so far away, Palmeiras had beaten the Egyptians 2-0. They were waiting for us in the final.

Wednesday was game day. After a late start – due to us both being sleep deficient and the alcoholic intake of the previous night – we welcomed Foxy down to our hotel. He, again, was a veteran of Japan 2012, and due to his life on the ocean waves was well versed to the ways of the UAE having spent many times in Dubai, though only a limited amount of access to Abu Dhabi. We loitered around the pool area and then zipped inside the adjacent restaurant where I had a very healthy pre-match meal of grilled chicken with a pear and blue cheese salad. It certainly differs from a Sunday roast at the Eight Bells or a Greggsfast on the A303.

The game was to begin at 8.30pm, and we wanted to ease into it. We caught a cab from our hotel at 5pm. By 5.30pm, we had gained entrance to the super sleek Dusit Thani hotel opposite the Mohammed Bin Zayed Stadium. The local Al Jazira football team plays at this stadium, but they had lost to our opponents Al Hilal from Riyadh in Saudi Arabia by the score of 6-1 on the Sunday. In the other second round game, Al Ahly from Egypt had beaten Monterrey of Mexico 1-0. By an odd twist, we had beaten Monterrey in our semi-final in 2012.

Al Jazira, Al Hilal, Al Ahly, Alhosin. We just needed Al Yankovic, Al Molinaro, Al Jarreau and Al Davidson to show up and we would be totally flummoxed.

We settled in at a quiet bar in the hotel. I met up with Robert, a Yorkshireman who once lived in Houston, but has flitted between Dubai and Baku in recent years – he is employed within the oil industry – and I last saw him out in Baku. I leisurely enjoyed two pints of Peroni although the prices were a little more expensive than at our hotel; up to £13 here.

Foxy spotted three lads sat at the bar opposite; their shirts were Celtic, Leeds United and Ajax. A lad with a Barcelona shirt was stood behind them.

“Brave or stupid.”

On the next table were two Saudi lads, timidly sipping two small glasses of lager.

“Cheers lads.”

They smiled.

“Bet this is like a trip to Benidorm for them.”

Now the moment of truth. At 7pm, we left the bar and walked over a pedestrian bridge, which went up and over a busy road, to get to the stadium. At the entrance gate, a check of the ticket, a check of my Alhosin App, and we were in. My small pocket camera was waved through too.

After all the worry and stress…my smiles were absolutely authentic.

I was happy. I mean, really happy.

It was 7.30pm. An hour to kick-off. My immediate goal was to try to find the stadium’s wifi password, but this was an impossible task. My data had run out and so I would be jettisoned from the outside world until I could hook back up with a hotel wifi. But not to worry. Life goes on, eh? In the concourse, there was a group of around twenty Muslims, including a few Chelsea supporters, kneeling on mats and praying to the west.

I got mine out and prayed for myself.

Our tickets placed us midway into a half in the lower tier of the northern side stand. The view was decent. Over the course of the hour, we spotted a few familiar faces; Scott, Roy and Margaret, Leigh and Darren. Later, I would spot the increasingly familiar face of Astrijd vlogging away a few seats to my right. Robert from Baku was close by. Dave Johnstone was spotted. Elsewhere in our section, there was a tremendous mix of people. Local Chelsea fans, Chelsea fans from further afield, Al Hilal fans – dressed in blue – and even fans of other competing teams. I won’t lie, it felt odd to be in and among the opposition. I tried to spot Chelsea fans that I knew from home in the lower tier behind the goal. No luck. Lots and lots of Chelsea flags though. Good work!

The consensus was maybe one thousand Chelsea from the UK. Maybe a few more.

At various moments we were treated to the stadium lights being dimmed and then spotlights flying around, but then a couple of morons asking us all to “make some noise.”

The British contingent stood with our hands in our pockets and muttered obscenities beneath our breath.

Using a few screeches from AC/DC as a scene setter seemed a very odd choice I have to say.

Soon, the kick-off was upon us.

Chelsea in all yellow. I loved that. Bollocks to Borrusia Dortmund. Al Hilal in all blue. The teams lined up. The end to my right housed the Saudi militants – perish that thought – and they put on a fine show with steamers and banners.

Chelsea :

Kepa

Christensen – Silva – Rudiger

Azpilicueta – Jorginho – Kovacic – Alonso

Havertz – Ziyech

Lukaku

Facemasks were worn by many. Mine was on and off every ten minutes.

The game began and Al Hilal soon pounced on an early mistake but a weak shot caused Kepa no concerns.

Soon into the game Al Ultra turned on his loud speaker and tried to stimulate the Al Hilal supporters around him to cheer the team on. It sounded so much like an imam and a call to prayer. It was such a surreal sound.

We grew into the game. It wasn’t a particularly hot evening. I was wearing jeans as were many others. Hakim Ziyech immediately caught my eye and looked to be keen and interested to set up chances for himself and others. Thiago Silva looked his usual composed self. Dave was often wide right, unmarked, but we often chose to ignore him. The chances began to stack up with Lukaku just missing out on passes and crosses. One strong run from him on twenty-five minutes impressed me. If only he could show such willingness to create opportunities for himself more often. Kovacic was running the midfield. We were well on top.

Our support was trying its best but we were easily out sung by the opposition.

Once or twice, Ziyech danced and weaved into the box from the right and attempted that “far post” bender” that he loves. Other shots were blocked. Our dominance continued. Al Hilal were not in it. They hardly escaped their half.

“CAM ON CHOWLSEA. CAM ON CHOWLSEA.”

On the half-hour, Kovacic raced up field and released Havertz on the left. His first cross was blocked but on the rebound, he pushed the ball inside again. The cross hit an Al Hilal defender and the ball fell into the path of Lukaku who smashed it home from close range.

The goal was met by a guttural roar, from me especially.

I punched the air, then caught a few celebratory snaps.

Phew.

I just couldn’t face questions at work the next week : “How did that third and fourth place play-off go, Chris?”

We looked more confident after that goal. It must have calmed us; players and fans alike. We needed another, but Al Hilal now threatened a little. Thankfully, we looked solid and their attacks misfired.

We had dominated possession; 62% Chelsea in the first-half.

At the break, N’Golo Kante replaced Jorginho.

Soon into the second period, Kai Havertz broke away down in front of us and kept running. He drew the ‘keeper and chipped the ball over him from inside the six-yard box. It clipped the post.

Bollocks.

Another goal then would have steadied the ship. Sadly, the second-half was a mightily poor affair indeed. Al Hilal warmed to the challenge and threatened us on too many occasions for my liking. Our singing completely faded in the second-half. Their number seventeen Moussa Marega looked half-decent – a more mobile version of Lukaku – and he was aided in attack by Odion Ighalo, who used to play for Watford.

The move of the game brought me lots of pleasure though. A cross from Kante, after he ridiculously knocked the ball over the head of his marker, was headed back by Lukaku and Ziyech “faded” his shot to keep it down. The Al Hilal ‘keeper pulled off a fine save.

There was a magnificent block from Kepa on the hour mark; that man Marega’s shot was adeptly stopped by our young ‘keeper. Mohammed Kanno’s firm drive was then saved at full stretch by Kepa. The boy was keeping us in it.

There was worry and concern among all the Chelsea supporters now.

When Mason Mount replaced Ziyech with twenty minutes to go, there were boos around the stadium; although from The Netherlands and now playing for Morocco, he was obviously a local favourite.

A shot from the impressive Pereira went close.

“Come on Chelsea.”

Malang Sarr replaced Alonso, who had been his usual mixture of raiding wing play but defensive slips. Mount went close at the death, but that elusive second goal never came.

Thankfully, we held on.

Our possession had steadied out to 55% at the end.

It was a rotten second-half, but we had reached the FIFA World Club Cup Final. The gate was given as 19,751. I had said to PD that it seemed about half-full. The Al Hilal fans looked genuinely crestfallen. We just looked relieved.

PD and I slowly returned to the same bar as pre-match. We soon met up with Frank and Mike from New York. I met Dutch Mick too – also there in 2012 – and there was time for one last “Peroni” before PD and I caught a cab back to our digs.

We knew of several Chelsea fans who were flying over especially for the final; I was so pleased for them.

Now it was time to relax. And for a date with some camels.

4 thoughts on “Tales From The Arabian Peninsula

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s