Saudi Clasico: Familiar foes Al Hilal and Al Ittihad ready to write more RSL history

Yasser Al Qahtani, the legendary Saudi striker with a laser finish, scored many goals throughout his decorated career.

A veteran of both Al Hilal and the national team, he netted tap-ins and struck wonder goals. He’s even notched at the FIFA World Cup.

But perhaps no goal will mean as much as the one in which, rather strangely, there remains conjecture as to whether Al Qahtani touched the ball at all.

To set the scene, it’s the final game of the 2007-08 Roshn Saudi League season. Al Ittihad and Al Hilal, the two most successful clubs in Saudi Arabia, had shared all but two of the previous 12 league titles.

In the 2006-07 campaign, Al Ittihad won the championship with a 94th-minute winner against Al Hilal at a time the top-flight adopted a play-off finals format to decide the champion.

Reverting to a traditional league format for the 2007-08 season, the trophy would again be decided on the final day of the season. Again, it was Al Ittihad squaring off against Al Hilal.

Al Ittihad, the defending champions, held a three-point lead going into the decisive game. But with head-to-head, rather than goal difference the ultimate tiebreaker, Al Hilal knew three points would be enough to secure the title.

The Prince Abdullah Al Faisal Stadium in Jeddah provided the setting for the winner-takes-all encounter, and naturally there was a capacity crowd in attendance supplying the type of raucous atmosphere you’d expect from one of Asia’s most intense and passionate rivalries.

The decisive moment came early in the second half, when Ahmed Al Fraidi floated a cross into the Al Ittihad penalty area for Al Qahtani, who got the faintest of touches to head home what was the only goal of the game. It not only won the match, but sealed Al Hilal’s 11th league title.

To this day, that match is still remembered as “شعره ياسر”, which translates as "Yasser’s Hair", given how imperceptible the touch was for the championship-settling goal.

Whether Al Qahtani nicked the ball or not is now part of the folklore of the Saudi Clasico, the fiercest and most hotly contested football rivalry within the Kingdom.

While not a derby as such, given the two teams come from different cities – Al Ittihad, Jeddah; Al Hilal, Riyadh - it sits alongside some of world football’s great head-to-heads between teams from different cities. Think Manchester United versus Liverpool, or the Derby d'Italia between Juventus and Inter Milan. And perhaps most famous of all: El Clasico between Real Madrid and Barcelona.

They are rivalries built on history, success, passion, and civic pride between two competing cities.

The Saudi Clasico is no different.

Al Hilal and Al Ittihad are the two biggest clubs in the history of Saudi football from the two biggest cities in the Kingdom. They are first and second for the number of titles won, albeit Al Hilal’s tally of 18 is double that of their Jeddah counterparts, which no doubt rankles the fans of yellow-and-black persuasion.

In Asia, the pair are the only Saudi Arabian clubs to have been lifted the continent's premier club prize. And, while Al Hilal again have double the trophies of their rivals, Al Ittihad can claim to have something Al Hilal has never managed: back-to-back AFC Asian Champions League successes.

While the history is important, what always matters most is the next game and getting that edge over your old foe again. Bragging rights are what it’s all about.

Al Hilal have those at the moment after their thrilling 4-3 win over Al Ittihad earlier in the season in Jeddah, when they rebounded from 1-3 down to snatch an historic win that, in hindsight, set their season alight. Heading into Matchweek 22, Al Hilal enjoyed a seven-point lead at the RSL summit.

Jorge Jesus’ men are yet to taste defeat this season, and that is something Marcelo Gallardo and his Al Ittihad side, still Saudi champions, would love to change when they travel to Kingdom Arena in Riyadh on Friday for the latest installment of the Clasico.

Sitting fifth, Al Ittihad’s title defence may be all but over, but they can have a huge say on where the silverware goes this season. Given the competitive history between the two, inflicting Al Hilal’s first loss of the 2023-24 league campaign would surely give Al Ittihad an immense amount of satisfaction.

Looking further ahead, the next fortnight promises to be a treat, as the two teams also meet in the quarter-finals of the AFC Champions League. With the knockouts played across two legs, the next fortnight will serve up not one, not two, but three Saudi Clasicos.

They all come with so much on the line - as they always do.

Fifteen years ago, it was Al Qahtani writing his name into Saudi Clasico legend. Who will step up this time, and write the latest chapter in the history of Saudi Arabia’s most rousing rivalry?