Saudi Arabia’s Eternal Rivalry: Al Hilal v Al Ittihad
Riyadh: Derby matches pitting city rivals against one another are often an occasion relished by football fans, but rivalries aren’t always local. Sometimes, a league’s two most successful and most popular teams clash with even more passion.
In Spain, Real Madrid and Barcelona battle it out in ‘El Clasico’ but in Saudi Arabia, it is Al Hilal and Al Ittihad who contest the ‘Saudi Clasico’.
Honours were even when the teams met earlier this season as the tie ended 1-1. With the January 13 reverse fixture looming, the-AFC.com takes a look at the passionate rivalry between the two sides.
Al Hilal, Saudi Arabia’s most successful club, were founded in the capital Riyadh in 1957. Tournament success came quickly for them as they won the inaugural Saudi Pro League in 1976-77.
Since then, the club have gone on to win a further 13 league titles as well as six continental titles including two Asian Club Championships in 1991 and 2000. Al Hilal are Asia’s most followed football club on Twitter, with over eight million followers.
On the other side, Al Ittihad fans pride themselves in being the country’s oldest surviving football club, established in 1927. To put it into perspective, modern Saudi Arabia was only united as a nation in 1932.
The Jeddah based side is arguably the nation’s most popular, attracting a record average crowd of 25,000 fans last season despite finishing fourth in the league.
Al Ittihad dominated Saudi football around the turn of the century, winning six of their seven league titles in the decade between 1997 and 2007.
The Tigers took their form into AFC competitions too, becoming the only team to date, to retain the AFC Champions League title with back-to-back trophies in 2004 and 2005.
In recent years, Al Ittihad struggled in the face of mounting financial troubles, with their last league title dating back to the 2008-09 season. In that period, Al Hilal have won three league titles and are on track to make it a fourth this year.
With a capacity of 67,000, the King Fahd International Stadium in Riyadh plays home to Al Hilal who will host Saturday’s fixture. The Blues haven’t had much success in the “Clasico” at home recently, losing the last two without scoring.
Interestingly, Al Ittihad have also failed to win their last two home clashes against Al Hilal, losing 1-3 and drawing 1-1 at the King Abdulla Sport City Stadium in Jeddah.
Al Hilal sit atop the Saudi Pro League with 35 points, while Al Ittihad are fifth, 12 points behind their rivals. Both clubs are currently managed by South American managers: Chilean Jose Luis Sierra at Al Ittihad and Argentine Ramon Diaz at Al Hilal.
This South American flavour will add extra spice to what is already a hotly-contested affair.
Saudi international Fahad Al Muwallad has missed a chunk of Al Ittihad’s season through injury, but has one of the highest goal scoring records in the league with a goal every 192 minutes this season.
The key man for Al Hilal will undoubtedly be Omar Khribin. The 2017 Asian Footballer of the Year has been in creative form for the club with four assists in the league this season.
A Match to Remember
Like all good rivalries, there have been some epic matches between the sides in the past.
Nearly 60,000 fans filled the King Abdullah Sport City Stadium in 2015 as the two rivals played out a thriller with no fewer than seven goals and as many yellow cards.
The hosts dominated the first half and led 3-0 at half time thanks to an own goal and goals from Gelmin Rivas (now an Al Hilal player) and Al Muwallad.
Al Hilal managed to claw it back to 3-2 but the Tigers went on to win it 4-3 with Mohammed Bu Sabaan securing the three points.
What we know is that this game historically produces goals and drama. The last eight matches between these two sides have seen 29 goals and 48 cards.