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Riyadh - A history of Asian football

Kuala Lumpur: Riyadh is hosting an AFC Champions League final for the third time in six years, but the Saudi capital's rich traditions in Asian football are decades old.

When Al Hilal take on Urawa Red Diamonds in the first leg of the 2019 AFC Champions League final, it will be the sixth time Riyadh is hosting a final tie in the AFC Champions League or Asian Club Championship, a record bettered by no other city in the Continent and only matched by Bangkok.

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Domestically, Riyadh’s three big clubs – Al Hilal, Al Nassr and Al Shabab - have amassed 29 out of 43 Saudi League titles contested since the start of the competition, more than double the next city - Jeddah, whose two giants Al Ittihad and Al Ahli have, combined, won 11 league titles.

The derby between Al Hilal and Al Nassr is one of the fiercest rivalries in the Continent. A contest that over the years produced classic encounters, unforgettable moments and saw some of the biggest names in Saudi football grace the pitch.

Riyadh has also established itself as a destination for the good and the great of Asian football. Al Hilal alumni features the likes of Korea Republic’s Lee Young-pyo and Kwak Tae-hwi, Kuwait’s Bashar Abdullah, Oman’s Ali Al Habsi and UAE’s Omar Abdulrahman.

Al Nassr was once home for the likes of Qatar’s Mohammed Salem Al Enezi and Iraq’s Nashat Akram, while their current line-up includes Australian international Brad Jones. Al Shabab, meanwhile, can count amongst their best Asian imports Uzbekistan legend Server Djeparov.

Riyadh boasts not one, not two, but three different teams that have won Continental titles in various AFC competitions.

The love relationship between Riyadh and Asian club competitions started over three decades ago, when the city hosted the final round of the 1986 Asian Club Championship.

Just like on Saturday, Al Hilal were involved and so were a Japanese side. The four-team mini tournament saw Japan’s Furukawa Electric FC crowned champions while Al Hilal finished second.

Exactly a decade later, Al Hilal were again locking horns with a Japanese team at King Fahd International Stadium with Asian glory at stake. Club legends Sami Al Jaber and Yousef Al Thunayan, both born in Riyadh, scored as the Blues beat Nagoya Grampus Eight 3-1 to lift the 1997 Asian Cup Winners Cup.

Since then, Al Hilal have grown into Asia’s most decorated club side with six titles across the Asian Club Championship, Asian Cup Winners Cup and Asian Super Cup.

Across town, archrivals Al Nassr lived their golden years at the turn of the century, winning the 1998 Asian Cup Winners Cup and the Asian Super Cup in the same year.

And while the vast majority of Continental honours were brought to Riyadh by Al Hilal and Al Nassr, there is also Al Shabab.

One of Saudi Arabia’s traditional powerhouses, Al Shabab reached the 1992-93 Asian Club Championship final, but lost to PAS Tehran. Their biggest success, however, came in 2001 when they defeated Dalian Shide to win the Asian Cup Winners Cup.

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