Saudi millionaires snub locals

​Western Sydney Wanderers FC defender Antony Golec caused a stir this week when he admitted he “wouldn’t have a clue” who Al-Hilal, their opponents in Saturday night’s ACL final, are.

Well, Al-Hilal have a pretty high opinion of themselves if their visit to Sydney is any indication.

The Saudi club slipped into Sydney a few days ago on a private jet and promptly ignored media and fans as they set up in one of the most expensive harbourside hotels in the city.

The ‘Blue Wave’ have trained away from the spotlight in the inner west and have complained at every turn when Aussie journalists have turned up to report on them.

Who’d have thought journos would be there ahead of an Asian Champions League final?!

They’ve even allegedly reneged on a deal to train at the $3.5m renovated Lambert Park, claiming the artificial surface was “too flat” and did not reflect the pitch at Wanderland.

It’s left local club Apia Leichhardt Tigers, who use Lambert Park as their home, $1200 out of pocket after Al Hilal left after just one day and not four days as initially thought. 

The Saudi millionaires will however have to front the media on Friday for the mandated official pre-match press conference, though if they could get out of it they would (it’s an AFC requirement so we’ll get to hear from their coach, Laurențiu Reghecampf).

The club has fanatical support, though. 

Hundreds have made the trip from Riyadh (with the club paying for 200 to fly over) for Saturday night’s first leg while more than 60,000 will pack out the King Fahd Stadium a week later for the return.

Though they are clearly not very popular with other clubs in Saudi Arabia – a huge number of fans are jumping on the Wanderers’ bandwagon for this two-legged ACL tie to spite a club also nicknamed “The Boss”.

A Twitter account has been set up for Saudi fans supporting Wanderers against Al Hilal. 

Fair play to them, though, Al Hilal  has a grand history, winning 55 different titles in just 57 years as a club.

Quite simply, they are a giant of Asian football and have won the continental decider twice before in 1991 and 2000.

Only one club has won the Asian title on three occasions and that is Korean side Pohang Steelers, a feat Al Hilal will equal if they can dispose of the Wanderers.

While the club has a rich history, it’s the talent and threats in the current squad which matters most to Wanderers boss Tony Popovic and his squad.

More than a dozen of the current squad have represented the Saudi national side, including four who lined up against the Socceroos in a friendly last month.

Skipper Yasser Al-Qahtani is their most well-known local player, having been a constant feature of the national team over the last decade (he’s a huge star in Saudi, and regularly advertises products on TV).

Nasser Al-Shamrani has played a crucial role in getting Laurențiu Reghecampf’s side to the decider, having scored 10 times in the competition to be the ACL’s second highest goal-scorer this year.

But like many of the successful Asian clubs they have some exceptional foreign talent to compliment the local stars. And Al Hilal have recruited some sensational imports.

Brazilian attacking midfielder Thiago Neves is the pick of the bunch. He has played eight times for the Selecao and is Al Hilal’s leading goal-scorer in the league this season with four goals in seven games.

Neves is given the freedom to roam forward thanks to the exploits of holding midfielder Mihai Pintilii, a regular international with Romania.

Perhaps their shrewdest signings have come in defence with Korean centre-back Kwak Tae-hwi and Brazilian Digao part of a backline that has conceded just one goal in their last nine ACL matches.

This will be a fierce contest between the pride of working class Western Sydney and the wealthy elite from Saudi who believe winning the ACL is their destiny.