‘It's not just love for me, it's life for me’

Beneath the plumes of blue and white smoke, tifos and flares, and at heart of the cauldron of noise, Osamah Abdullah will be where he always is when Al Hilal play: among the throngs of “Blue Power” ultras.

Friday will be no different. But Friday is different. 

This is the first Riyadh Derby of the 2023-24 Roshn Saudi League season, the first derby since the arrival of a multitude of international stars to Saudi Arabia. 

And on Friday, when league leaders Al Hilal face second-placed Al Nassr at King Fahd Sports City at 9pm, Osamah will sing even louder than usual, and just a little bit more passionately.

Because, while it’s a 68,000-capacity sellout at the ground, millions more will be watching across the globe.

“It's not just love for me when it comes to Al Hilal, it's life for me,” Osamah says. “And that goes for all ‘Blue Power’ members, all Al Hilal fans.”

Describing the 24-year-old marketing specialist as a “big fan” is an understatement; like ultra and diehard supporters across the world, he tries to go to every single game his club plays, home or away.

Saudi Arabia is a country where 80 percent of the population play, watch or follow football. And nowhere is that more evident than the Riyadh Derby, where be it in the stadium, or on TV at home, or either of the club’s fan cafes in the city, all eyes are on the capital’s big two.

At the opposite end of the divide is Abu Sultan, who has been watching Al Nassr for 48 years. These days, he laughingly says, he leaves the chanting to the younger Al Nassr fans.

But he’s still as much in love with Al Alami – “The Global One” – as when he first went to watch them all those years ago. 

“I’ll always be with Al Nassr, it’s a part of who I am,” he says. “Nowadays we have international superstars like Cristiano Ronaldo, but this club was making waves in international football decades ago. Al Nassr was the first to represent Asia in 2000 [at the FIFA Club World Cup].”

With a four-point advantage over their rivals in the table after 14 rounds, the derby at home to Al Nassr could be crucial to winning the title back for Al Hilal.

Bar last season’s RSL crown for Al Ittihad from Jeddah, and rivals Al Nassr triumphing in 2019, Al Hilal, considered by many “the Real Madrid of Asia”, have claimed the Saudi Arabian title every other season since 2017.

“The derby is an important game that might affect the fate of the league,” Osamah says. “All of the world is now watching Saudi Arabian football – and our passion can play a big part in Al Hilal winning.

“Al Hilal play as a team, and [Aleksandar] Mitrovic is in great form. He's a beast and hungry for scoring goals.”

Friend Abdulaziz Banaemah, also an Al Hilal fan, calls the Riyadh Derby “the biggest game of any season”, but that this year is “even more special”.

Abdulaziz, however, has a problem: he’s working on Friday and can’t get out of it.

“Al Hilal will win and that will make up for it,” he declares.

Victory for Al Nassr fan Ghaida Khaled AlSayar, though, would be particularly special.

“All of my family support Al Nassr,” she says, “except one sister.”

She pauses, then smiles. “It would mean a lot to us to win this game.”  

The arrival this season of household names from across the footballing world to Saudi Arabia have been “extraordinary”, the English teacher, who has been watching Al Nassr since childhood, adds.

“It’s such a high level - Cristiano, Sadio Mane, they’re global stars,” Ghaida says. “Cristiano is the GOAT. I respect [Lionel] Messi, but, please, Cristiano is the GOAT.”

Fourteen-year-old Al Nassr fan Aliag Sarkis comments that “people believe Cristiano Ronaldo is the reason we’re winning, but it’s actually the chemistry between the team,” adding: “I just hope we win against Al Hilal.”

The footballing world awaits to see whether she, Ghaida or Abu Sultan get their wish on Friday. Or if it’s Abdulaziz, Osamah and Blue Power celebrating.