Hilal and sport fanaticism


I WAS one of the members of a large group of sports fans in Madinah at a private gathering arranged especially to view the keenly-poised AFC Champions League final match return-leg between the Riyadh-based team Al-Hilal and Urawa Red Diamonds of Japan on Saturday being beamed from Tokyo. The match ended in favor of the Japanese team 1-0, after the teams had drawn 1-1 in the first leg in Riyadh. For the record, the Japanese club won 2-1 on aggregate and lifted the title.

As Saudis, the normal thing for us would have been to support Hilal in the hope that the Riyadh club would land an international title on Saturday and add another championship to the record list of the team’s achievements and another feather in Saudi football’s cap. Initially everything was normal as all voiced support for the Saudi team to win. What, however, became apparent as the match progressed was not normal as many Saudis in the gathering were supporting the Japanese team and praying to God that Hilal would not win the title.

When Urawa’s Brazilian striker Rafael Silva scored the winning goal in the 88th minute of the match, the group of Saudis were jumping for joy and shouting in happiness for the Japanese team. Their actions were unbelievable. I am sure that they were happier than the Japanese themselves. Those happy were fans from other local clubs and they were teasing Hilal fans, who were already sad and angry at losing the title, at the gathering. To add insult to the injury, a rival club fan was seen celebrating Hilal’s loss by slaughtering a camel in a widely circulated video.

Soon after the match ended, social media was full of people making fun of Hilal and its attempts to win the title, not mentioning the hundred of WhatsApp messages and video clips against the Saudi club team. This is not the first time that Hilal was in a situation like this as the team had faced a similar one in 2014 when they lost the title against Western Sydney Wanderers in Riyadh. The Jeddah-based team Al-Ahli took its share of ill wishes when it lost in 2012. Ahli lost the championship finale against the South Korean team Ulsan Hyundai.

The act of supporting a foreign rival team can be only described as treason, on a sports level. Sadly, this is a phenomenon that is widely seen in our sport — for a large percentage of fans to support visibly and vocally foreign teams against a Saudi team in international competition are rampant and unfortunately growing.

My main point here is not about Hilal losing the final as much as discussing a more vital subject, which is fanaticism in our sports. What made us sink to this level of wishing a Saudi team to lose against a foreign one? If I was to choose a reason, then the only one will be the growth of ‘sport fanatics’, who go under the cover of sport critics and sport journalists, and who have invaded our visual and written media.

The basic characteristic of a sports critic is be fair while reflecting the game to the best of his abilities, and remain neutral when discussing and analyzing sports issues. That is not the case here as most of our sports critics are in reality ‘lawyers’ of their favorite team and their main job is to defend their team at any cost and when need be, attack the rival teams.

Anyone watching these critics in action after a match discussing the game will be able to see for themselves the level of respect they show to their viewers when discussing the game and respecting each other’s viewpoints even if they differ. If anyone can watch, or stomach, some of our sports discussions on TV then one notices the low level some of our sport critics have reached. Over the years, it has become normal to see shouting and yelling and sometimes finger-pointing at each other.

I understand the rivalry between clubs and their fans in local competitions. Fans wish to see the rival teams lose their matches so that their own favorite team benefits; but that is local. What I don’t understand is continual parochial attitude, when we see this happening at an international level where the rival team is from a foreign country.

The joy of seeing a Saudi club team losing is the product of the long years in the past feeding fanaticism to fans especially in the sports media. These fanatical critics are the ones feeding fanaticism into our sports through their radical comments and discussions and casting their poison on our youth and affecting them negatively.

A statistical survey conducted by King Abdullah Center for National Dialogue in 2015 showed that 50 percent of people believe that sports fanaticism comes from fans of rival teams attacking their own team, while 26 percent see the fanatic sports critics as the main reason when they instigate sport fanaticism through their TV shows. Others attributed the reason to game referees, who side indirectly with rival teams, and others see the club administrators fuming and fueling sport fanaticism.

The General Sport Authority should work closely with the Ministry of Culture and Information to clear our sports from fanatics, especially in television. Positive steps were taken in the past and some writers and sport critics, who were known for spreading fanaticism, were suspended. But more needs to be done. If we cannot put an end to this, then let’s get ready for hooligans to take it to a physical level.

— The writer can be reached at mahmad@saudigazette.com.sa Twitter: @anajeddawi_eng