Sunday, July 15, 2007

Saudis Spoil The Party

Saudi players celebrate dramatic win

It is easy with hindsight to say that it was coming but it was. Even the combined wills of 90,000 partisan Indonesian fans couldn’t stop Saad Al Harthi’s header crashing high into Pitoy’s net three minutes into injury time.

The free-kick was taken right in front of the press box - one which seemed to have more supporters than reporters - and the location was an inviting one with several tall Saudis waiting in the middle just one good cross away.

So, instead of 1-1 it was 2-1 to the three-time champions. Instead of a draw against South Korea next Wednesday, Indonesia will almost certainly need to put the Taeguk Warriors to the sword and relieve the visitors of all three points, though in an Asian Cup full of surprises, such a thing is not beyond the realms of possibility.

Indonesian players belt out their anthem

Earlier the same evening, Gelora Bung Karno wasn’t a stadium stunned into silence by Haarthi's header - it had been rocking. Buoyed by the team’s thrilling 2-1 win over Bahrain four days previously, the locals had responded by snapping up all tickets more than 24 hours before kick-off.

Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur may be resistant to the delights of the Asian Cup but Jakarta has been coming down with a full-blown fever and it was contagious.

To say the atmosphere was deafening would be an understatement. Even 45 minutes before kick-off, it was special. In such surroundings it is easy to get carried away and believe that anything is possible – the fans certainly did.

Gelaro Bung Karno Stadium almost an hour before kick-off

They had been told to come early as President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono had decided to pay his first ever visit to the national arena to see the team. Security was tight and the khaki of the uniformed security guards was a sharp contrast to the strangely attractive green and white shirts that the liaison officers sported.

It was Saturday night with the Saudis. Unlike the fans, most of whom were sporting ‘unofficial’ national team shirts, the local scribes were not confident of keeping out the visitors. “You saw our defence against Bahrain, it is not good,” said one.

That may be but the hosts have buckets of pride and passion and while the three-time continental champs had more of the possession in a lively opening period, it was Indonesia who had the chances.

Elie Aiboy missed a sitter from three yards after ten minutes and will still shaking his head when Saudi striker Yasser Al-Qahtani was sticking his on a great cross from Ahmed Al Bahri to put his team ahead.

The crowd barely missed a beat and continued to roar on the reds and they were rewarded five minutes later as Aiboy made up for his earlier miss by rounding the goalkeeper and coolly slotting the ball home.

Indonesia finished the half with a couple of good chances and hopes were high at half-time. There was still a sneaking suspicion that another goal was necessary to secure the point that would have satisfied every spectator - from the legions of security guards who never took their eyes from the action to the president himself.

Guards glued to game

As the second period progressed, the Saudis took control and started to make chances. The crowd were quieter than they had been all night; they were nervous, the local scribes were nervous and I was nervous.

The referee may have been over-fussy during the game but was correct to award a free-kick just outside the right side of the Indonesian penalty area. As the Saudis lined up the kick, and crowded the six yard box with their tallest players, it was not difficult to predict what was going to happen.

That cross found the head of Saad Al Harthi. Haarthi missed a sitter during injury time against Korea and had been vilified by the Saudi press. Redemption was his as he headed the ball firmly into the net - the Saudis’ second aerial goal of the game.

While the goal was probably deserved, it was cruel as all last-minute winners are. You didn’t need to be an expert in the local language to understand the general sentiments that were being expressed by those in the press box and outside.

The Saudi scribes were on their feet though. One of them seemed to be hit by a missile. I had been warned that Indonesians fans don’t take defeat very well and are prone to fighting after losing. Outside the stadium, that didn't seem to be the case - the atmosphere outside was calm and slightly sad.

There is still one game left though and it should be a cracker.

Copyright: John Duerden & Soccerphile

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