JAKARTA: At times it seemed nothing would quieten the raucous crowd. As Saudi Arabia surprisingly beat hosts Indonesia 3-1 in Men’s Pool A at the Asian Games, the home fans inside the Gelora Bung Karno Volleyball Arena made a din so deafening and chanted so incessantly that it felt more like a final than a first-round group stage match.
Not a Saudi Arabian serve close to topping 100kph nor a spike with such accuracy it kissed the boundary line threatened to dampen the Indonesians’ spirits, as they continued to cheer and light-heartedly jeer until the end. As their defeated compatriots headed for the changing rooms after dropping the fourth and final set 25-22, impassioned fans pleaded for hand-slaps and bottles of Pocari Sweat.
“It’s incredible, right?” said Ibrahim Al-Moaiqel, the 22-year-old Saudi Arabia player. “This atmosphere… Indonesians are so full of energy. I love them so much. We’ve seen nothing but good energy everywhere we go. They cheer for Indonesia, but they also cheer for the other teams, so it makes us all so happy to be here.
“It was a pretty tough match with both sides having to play clean to win. Indonesia had a quick offense from the right side, so that put us at a disadvantage and that was clear in the second set, but luckily we were able to fight some questionable calls and get the result. We knew we would have to fight to win because last year we lost, but this time we came through. Indonesia are a great team though and we expect to see them again later in this tournament.”
Saudi Arabia, having beaten Kyrgyzstan 3-1 last week, faced Indonesia knowing a victory would secure top spot in their group, but also aware that their opponents had the upper hand having beaten them the last time they met. The Kingdom’s coach, Zharko Ristoski, had billed his side as the underdogs, but watched them race to a one-set lead, playing not only with style, but with smiles as wide as the varnished court to edge it 25-23.
Concern crept in after a second set in which they made several unforced errors and conceded three aces, losing 25-16. Having shown a similar drop in concentration in their previous match, Ristoski will be keen to focus on improving his team’s mentality before their classification round match on Sunday.
“We played a great game and it’s important to get those two victories, secure the first place in the group and ensure that in the next round we will meet a second-placed team. That is so important for us,” said Ristoski, the Macedonia-born coach. “We opened the game very well, but then had problems in the second set, same as in our first match. We dropped our concentration a little, but again we showed very strong character to come back and win the next two sets.”
Whatever was said after the second set worked as Saudi Arabia reappeared determined to regain the lead, racing to a 5-0 advantage and eventually closing out the set 25-19. On match point in the crucial fourth, Ahmed Al-Bakheet smashed a spike through a flurry of bodies to seal a memorable victory, prompting choreographed celebrations and selfies with the scoreboard.
“Indonesia were the team who we expected to finish first in the group — they were favorites,” said Ristoski. “If you watch the last few years, Indonesia always defeated our national team and that is why this victory is bigger than usual. I am really happy.”
Al-Moaiqel refused to be drawn on how far he believes this team can go. Saudi Arabia finished bronze medallists in 2006, but this is a young team, a new generation of talent, many of whom are representing their country at this level for the first time.
“Our whole strategy is taking things one step at a time, be that one game, one point, one rally, we will see what we can do this tournament,” he said. “To be honest, we have high hopes, but we will see. We’re hoping to make some history this time. Gold medal is our goal, but we just need to see what we can do.”