Saudi football fans shrug off Russian hooligan fears for 2018 World Cup

File photo shows ecstatic Saudi football fans during the Asian World Cup qualifying match between Japan and Saudi Arabia on Sept. 5. (Reuters)
Updated 20 September 2017

Saudi football fans shrug off Russian hooligan fears for 2018 World Cup

LONDON: Saudi Arabian football fans are ready to brave supporting the Green Falcons at next year’s World Cup in Russia, despite widespread fears about hooliganism.
This summer the Russian tourist board opened a World Cup information center in London which the British media reported was to help ease England fans’ fears about hooligans at the 2018 World Cup.
The Russia tourist board denied that this was the reason behind the opening.
Last year’s European Championships, for many, set a worrying precedent.
Russia fans clashed repeatedly with England supporters when the two teams met in the group-stage match in Marseilles. The clashes, which took place both inside and outside the stadium, were blamed on a group of 150 hardcore trained hooligans from Russian gangs who traveled to France just to cause trouble.
“I and other fans have heard a few stories about Russian fans, stories saying they are violent and aggressive,” said Saudi football fan Faisal Ali. “I haven’t come across any Russian fans but we have heard stories about them fighting and taking on other fans. Hopefully it won’t put fans off traveling to support the country but it is the current climate of the world everyone seems weary of everyone else at the moment, it’s just how it is.”
It was the worst violence at an international tournament since the 1998 World Cup, also in France. The worried mood was not helped when Russian MP Igor Lebedev told the thugs after their battle in Marseilles: “Well done lads. Keep it up!”
The deadly display in France is set against a no less worrying backdrop of violence at Russian domestic matches. Neo-Nazi groups regularly turn up to games, the result being that their displays of hate and racism are as much a feature of the 90 minutes as goals and tackles.
That, however, has not put off Saudi Arabia fans keen to cheer on the team’s first appearance at a World Cup for 12 years. While the fans Arab News spoke to were well aware of threat of violence, they claimed they would not miss the opportunity to support their team in Russia.
Abdullah Al-Hudaithi said it was not the first time a World Cup had been scheduled to take place in a country where security fears sometimes dominated discussion.
“We know about Russia fans, we watched the European Championships and saw what happened,” Al-Hudaithi said.
“They have organized groups and we saw the violence and the unprovoked attacks, Russian fans have a bad reputation.
“But the World Cup has taken place in countries that many don’t think are safe before. In South Africa and Brazil there was worry about the threat of robberies.”
Added to that is the hope, and expectation, that Russian authorities will ensure there will be no major trouble while the eyes of the world are focused on the country.
“I expect there will be trouble between England and Russia fans, but not with us,” Al-Hudaithi said.
“We don’t have any Ultras, groups like that, we are well behaved so that’s why I don’t expect any trouble.
“Russian hooligans can be brutal, but inside their own country I expect the authorities to be organized and stop any trouble.”
Indeed, such is the expectation that trouble will not tarnish Saudi fans’ World Cup, the biggest worry ahead of the tournament is the more prosaic problem of getting visas and arranging travel.
“I have a few questions about getting a visa, we cannot get a tourist visa here in Saudi Arabia. That is my biggest worry,” Abdullah Al-Jassim said.
“I and many friends are planning to go to the 2018 World Cup but certainly there must be facilities by the Russian government on visas, safety and facilities.”
This summer the Confederations Cup, the traditional dry run for the World Cup, took place in Russia and passed off without incident.
That according to Alexey Cherepanov, director of Visit Russia UK, is what all fans can expect next summer.
“The news in the UK has presented (the Russian World Cup and opening of our office in London) in very negative terms, in real life it is not as the press has presented it, they have sensationalized it all,” he told Arab News.
“People in Russia welcome football fans and foreigners, we love and respect all people.
“This center in London is unique, it’s a pilot project if it goes well then other Visit Russia offices can open a World Cup office as well.
“In the Middle East we have Visit Russia offices in Dubai, Iran and Kuwait. Fans from KSA can call us and we’d try to help as much as possible.”

Mind games begin ahead of the return to Saudi football as Hilal boss Lucescu challenges Nassr coach

Updated 03 August 2020

Mind games begin ahead of the return to Saudi football as Hilal boss Lucescu challenges Nassr coach

  • Victory in this Riyadh Derby will take the three-time Asian champions nine points clear of Al Nassr with just seven games remaining
  • There has been good and bad news for Al Nassr as Brazilian centre-back Maicon Pereira has arrived in Riyadh from Galatasaray and has been cleared to play

DUBAI: There may have been no football in Saudi Arabia for five months but the mind games are in full flow as ahead of the crucial top of the table clash in the Saudi Pro League on Wednesday, Al Hilal boss Razvan Lucescu has told Al Nassr coach Rui Vitoria that the pressure is all on him.

In the first game since March when the season was suspended due to coronavirus, Al Nassr in second, six points behind the leaders with eight games to play, can’t afford any slip-ups in the Riyadh Derby if they are to successfully defend the title they won last season.

“We are six points ahead and the opponent is under more pressure as they know they have to reduce the difference,” Lucescu told reporters at the pre-match press conference to the eagerly-awaited Riyadh Derby that will take place with no fans in the King Fahd International Stadium.

That points gap means that the smart money is still on Al Hilal to take league title number 16. Victory in this Riyadh Derby will take the three-time Asian champions nine points clear of Al Nassr with just seven games remaining.

Not only that but Al Hilal have looked to be in better shape than their challengers in recent warm-up games with a 2-2 draw with second tier side Al-Shoalah following a 4-0 win over Al Riyadh.

“We have been looking forward to this game for a long time,”  Lucescu, who took Al Hilal to the AFC Champions League title in 2019, added. “The league suspension has been long and it has not been easy but we have focused on the mental side of things and aim to return strongly.”

The Romanian has been boosted by the return to fitness of Brazilian star Carlos Eduardo who has recovered from last week’s knock. With the league’s leading goalscorer Bafetimbi Gomis signing a contract extension in July, Lucescu is in a positive frame of mind.

“We know the way they play and we know that it will be a tough game …but everyone is affected by the long pause and we all start at the same level. We are just going to take it step by step and stay focused.”

There has been good and bad news for Al Nassr as Brazilian centre-back Maicon Pereira has arrived in Riyadh from Galatasaray and has been cleared to play. The former Porto star will be needed as fellow defenders Omar Hawsawi and Abdullah Madu could miss out through injury.

While Hilal may have the points gap, in terms of the personal battles between the two coaches, Vitoria has the upper hand. The Portuguese boss has yet to lose in three meetings with his Romanian rival in big games in Europe as well as Saudi Arabia.

In a final play-off to reach the group stage of the 2018-19 UEFA Champions League, Vitoria led Benfica to a 5-2 aggregate victory over PAOK, coached by Lucescu. After a 1-1 draw in Lisbon, the Portuguese powerhouse won 4-1 in Greece.

Earlier this season, Al Nassr inflicted Al Hilal’s only loss in the league this season so far with a 2-1 win at Hilal’s King Saud International Stadium in October with Moroccan forward Abderrazak Hamdallah getting both goals.

A similar result at Al Nassr’s home on Wednesday would breathe new life into the title race. Vitoria has stressed that recent friendly games were a chance to try out tactics and give players a run-out. Losses against Al Raed and Al Fateh however have given the Portuguese boss much to think about.

At the other end of the table.  Al Ittihad are just three places of the bottom of this 16-team league and in danger of the drop. The two-time AFC Champions League winners face a game on Tuesday at mid-table Abha where victory would provide the Jeddah giants with some much-needed breathing space.

The race for third and a place in the 2021 AFC Champions League is also a fierce one. Al Wehda are currently in the driving seat and host Al Shabab while Al Ahli in fourth and just two points behind host the struggling Al Hazem. Al Faisaly, Al-Taawon and Al Raed also have an outside chance of booking a place in next year’s continental competition.

All eyes will, however, be on the top of the table clash as Hilal can take a huge step towards the title. “I am happy with how the players have returned from the suspension and I am confident in  their abilities,”said Lucescu. “All we care about is winning the next match and that will help us win the league.”