I preach about not putting yourself in harms way, yet I often don’t practice what I preach. The height of my recklessness came in 2001 when I blagged my way into Prince Abdullah Al-Faisal Stadium in Jeddah at a time when war drums were loudly beating in the direction of Saudi Mohammed Bin Laden.
Saudi Arabia playing Iran at home, having gone down 2-0 in Teheran. The stadium was packed to the literal rafters with tickets sold out way in advance. While my colleagues decided it was time to hunker down after the attacks in America, I’ve never passed up the chance to take in life sport. No matter what it is, no matter where I was. And since I’d just agreed to play for a 2nd Division team, I wanted a taste of the local football culture. Though it almost went very, very wrong.
It was the days before online ticket sales were even a thing and nobody knew where to get tickets. Eventually one Saudi colleague drove me after work to a shop where a man smoking some pungent French cigarette produced a ticket. I thanked him, paid $10, and left. I realised quickly that the game would be on a Friday night, our Sunday! Our work week was Saturday – Wednesday, so with a late kick off, I’d be home late and hanging the next morning. Still, it as worth it.
Colleagues laughed at me on Wednesday, telling me I was never getting into the ground and that I was mad. My section Director told me that no “white man” would get in: Challenge – accepted.
I caught a taxi to the stadium, realising I’d been ripped off (paying $20 instead of $8), still, I was on the way. I was in the home section in the main stand. It was 90 minutes to kick off and I wanted to get in to get a feel for the place. There were four levels of security to get through, the first being police checking tickets and bags. The first hurdle proved insurmountable.
The policeman checked my ticket, looked at me, asked me for identification. Here was the first problem. My passport was held by my employer and I hadn’t yet been issued my Iqama – work card. I handed him my Irish driving licence, he looked at it and the ticket, shook his head and returned my licence. “No Saudi,” he smiled and tore my ticket into four pieces, crumpled the remains and threw them into the sand behind him. “Sorry.” $30 gone and I was now going to be slagged to death by the boss. Less than a month in Saudi and I was already done.
Chancing an arm in Saudi
That odd feeling when you have just been totally defeated and have no way forward. The thoughts that follow are often the most inspirational you’ll ever have. They’re also the most risky. Sitting on a kerb 100m from where I’d been stopped I remembered something and dug into my holdall. I knew, from my colleague, that the Iranian fans were in the stand opposite, as were the media boxes. In my possession, almost as a badge of honour, was a media card from FC Tirol Innsbruck. It was out of date, but I figured, why not.
I came to the first security post on the “away” side. With my black holdall slung over my shoulder, a notepad in hand I flashed the card. The policeman looked, called his colleague, who looked at it. I took out my small camera. “Click, click. Journalist.” They asked for I.D, my driving licence was presented. Two shrugs later and I was waved through. It was then my heart began to race. It was almost 30 degrees, sweat cascaded down my back and I’d just gotten past the first hurdle. There was no going back.
The second one was easier, they looked in my bag and waved me through, the pass and licence unnoticed. The third checkpoint was for tickets and passes, a Football Federation official looked at my pass and licence, shouted to a small portacabin to my left. The door opened and a white robed manager stormed out. He began to shout at me. I smiled, shrugged, did the click, click bit and pointed at the stadium. He shouted at the official, who hurriedly brought me through the gate and passed me to a colleague at the forth checkpoint.
I was past the last defender, the ‘keeper was tearing off their line and now a cool head and sharp finish was required. I looked around and I was alone, the final fence smiled and took my pass. He tut-tutted and shook his head, but he was still smiling. He took me inside the bland concrete structure and up 2 flights of stairs. He motioned to a room where, once inside, I realised was a press box. I had to sit and wait. I sipped my water, ate a mandarin and figured, I got within sight of the pitch but fell short. I’d be arrested for sure.
An hour before kick off and I was collected from the room by an English-speaking Iranian. He was told to “look after”. He took me outside to the garden concourse where the faithful were preparing for prayer. I asked Hassan what had happened. The only foreign press were from Asia and Iran. They didn’t know what to do with a European so they asked for help. Hassan was a Professor who’d also lived in Germany and who was the International assistant to the head of President of the Teheran University of Medical Sciences.
I sat alone as they prayed and then was beckoned to accompany them into the ground. It was a proper terrace yet everybody sat happily waiting for the start. I shared in their drinks (non-alcoholic) and food. For the first time saw people eating sunflower seeds and got a lesson in Iranian football history.
The teams came out to warm up and the noise was deafening. Drums, bagpipes, neys and mizmars sounding out the Saudi battle cries. Plastic bottles, fruit and coins were launched at the Iranian players. Most fell well short of their targets.
The Iranians, by contrast, were relatively quiet. They foresaw the referee and his team making “mistakes” and were very pessimistic of getting even a point.
The Iranian team, for me, was stacked. I’d seen many of the players perform when working in Germany and knew they should be better. Ali Karimi would go on to play for Bayern; Ali Daei I’d seen in the flesh for Arminia Bielefeld, Bayern and Hertha; Mehdi Mahdavikia I’d hated when he was with HSV; Karim Bagheri I’d also seen with Arminia. And ironically with my (then) in-date media pass, I’d seen Mehrdad Minavand play for Sturm Graz. Despite the din, Iran had to win.
From defeat’s jaws
Sami Al-Jaber was looking for a penalty when he turned Mehdi inside out and fell over his lazy legs just inside the box. 1-0 down after 20 minutes and the Iranian fans began to howl. Al-Jaber remains one of the best players I’ve seen live, his trickery, pace and vision killed Iran. I watched him play for his club that season three times (against Al Ahly and Al Ittihad) and looked forward to seeing him at the 2002 World Cup. But that was another story.
Saudi defending against crosses was, being kind, terrible. I would have said atrocious, catastrophic or any other word that is close to feces as possible. Ali Daei rose late to equalise before half time and Iran looked to have wrest control of momentum. After the break it was still Iran in control when Saudi broke, Al-Jaber was wide on the left, made space for himself then spun inside, glanced and flicked a pass to Al Ittihad’s Hasan Al-Yami who buried it.
Iran were rattled for a while and it wasn’t until poster boy Pejman Jamshidi and, another player I’d known from Germany, Sirous Dinmohammadi came on that Saudi were found out. Jamshidi pushed in on the Saudi full back and Dinmohammadi scared them with his full on, full-contact style. The latter disturbed the Saudi’s so much that he frightened their defenders into mixing up their calls to deal with the simplest of crosses. The ball broke to Dinmohammadi to equalise in the 84th minute. And that was it. 2-2, the visitors thrilled, the locals glad to have escaped with a point.
Ireland would go on to meet both teams within the 2002 World Cup festival, Iran in a playoff and Saudi in the Final. Al-Jaber would end up having an emergency appendectomy during the finals. His talents deserved a far higher stage than that far less talented, committed and dedicated footballers have enjoyed in top flight European football. He fell victim to being too good to lose.
Post Script: I was kept with the Iranian fans until after the game and then herded onto a bus with them. I was almost on my way to the airport only for the intervention of Hassan who came looking for me. The next morning was a tough one, though I’d survived and had a tale to tell. And with the luck of the draw, my next stop was the Azadi in Teheran for the second leg of the World Cup qualifier. Buts that’s another story.