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Al-Hilal and Urawa battle for supremacy on and off the pitch

Al-Hilal celebrate following their 2-0 victory in the second leg of the AFC Champions League final football match against Japan’s Urawa Red Diamonds on Nov. 24, 2019. (AFP)
Al-Hilal celebrate following their 2-0 victory in the second leg of the AFC Champions League final football match against Japan’s Urawa Red Diamonds on Nov. 24, 2019. (AFP)
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27 Apr 2023 12:04:23 GMT9
27 Apr 2023 12:04:23 GMT9
  • The finalists have some of the most passionate and colorful fan bases in Asian football

Paul Williams

If familiarity breeds contempt, then the feeling between Saudi Arabia’s Al-Hilal and Japan’s Urawa Red Diamonds has gone well beyond that emotion.

For the third time in five editions of Asia’s showpiece club competition, the two powerhouse clubs will again meet in the decider as they look to secure, for players and fans, the bragging rights of being Asia’s best team.

The spectacle, firstly at the King Fahd Stadium in Riyadh this weekend, followed by the return bout at the iconic Saitama Stadium the following weekend, will rival anything taking place in world football, with crowds of 60,000 expected at both legs that will create an atmosphere worthy of the occasion.

As hot as the battle will be on the pitch, the fight off it will be just as fiercely contested. While the almost 9,000-kilometer distance between the two makes away travel difficult, there will be small pockets of both red and blue at either stadium, demonstrating the passion of both sets of fans.

It is the noise and spectacle created by the respective home crowds that will be most eagerly anticipated, with both Urawa and Al-Hilal fans known around the world for their raucous support and epic, stadium-wide tifos — giant colorful displays generated before the game.

Both the King Fahd and Saitama stadiums have borne witness to some of the best displays of fan culture in Asia in recent years. And while the players are busy preparing for the battle on the pitch, those supporters clad in red or blue will be desperate to outdo each other to show that they too are Asia’s best.

“There is no doubt that there is great competition between the fans of the two clubs,” Al-Hilal diehard Bandar Alsaeedan told Arab News recently.

“In 2014, Al-Hilal’s board created a fans committee to manage Al-Hilal fans, and since then Al-Hilal fans have excelled in making tifos that have dazzled Asia,” said Alsaeedan.

“In 2019 the new management of Al-Hilal created something called ‘Blue Power,’ which is a huge group of fans who follow the team wherever it goes, and support and encourage the team in a creative way to motivate the players.

“But to be honest, Urawa also has very wonderful and amazing fans, and we may see each set of fans challenging the other in this match to prove its superiority in Asia.”

Taku Murakami is a lifelong Urawa Reds fan, having attended each of the club’s previous three AFC Champions League finals and will again be one of the lucky 60,000 fans clad for the return leg next weekend when he hopes to see his side clinch a third Asian title.

While he concedes there is a rivalry with Al-Hilal fans given their history, in true Japanese style he said Urawa fans seek only to support their players and not prove they are better than their Saudi counterparts.

“Some Reds supporters, particularly the ones who chant behind the goal at the north side of Saitama Stadium, might have a bit of rivalry with the Al-Hilal supporters,” he told Arab News recently.

“However, the main purpose of Reds’ supporters creating the best atmosphere and displaying the best tifo is not to prove they are better than the other, but to encourage Reds’ players to play for and pursue victory.”

One thing both sets of fans can agree on is that this year’s final is seen as the ultimate decider, with the ledger sitting at one win each. Urawa got the better of Al-Hilal in 2017 before the Saudi giants got their revenge in 2019.

“It is very rare for the same two clubs to play three times in the ACL final in this short period,” Murakami continued.

“Urawa won once in 2017, and Al-Hilal won once in 2019, so this third battle between them will determine which club is the genuine Asian champion.”

Alsaeedan, 29, is not short of confidence as the final approaches, going in with all the bravado we have come to expect from the blue half of Riyadh.

“In my opinion, at the present time, specifically the last three years, Al-Hilal is superior to all Asian teams in terms of level and in terms of local and international stars who play for Al-Hilal Club,” he said.

“I feel very optimistic about the next match, and I expect that we will win the match at home in Riyadh and achieve the title for the second time in a row and the fifth in the history of Al-Hilal.

“In my opinion, Al-Hilal is better than Urawa.”

Let the games begin, on and off the pitch.

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