Alexander Hleb is not here. The ex-Arsenal Belorussian has apparently signed for the home team but after a social media unveiling of sorts a few months back, it’s been radio silence. I’m getting the impression that he was just “signed” to come over for a meet and greet, but it’s hard to tell from the posts on Al Khaldiya’s Instagram. Either way, I’m getting Asprilla at Darlington vibes from this one.
You may be asking why Hleb would – at 40 years old – come out of retirement to play for a Bahraini club side, and you’d be right to do so. But Al Khaldiya are the new boys in town and flush with cash. Formed only last year, they were promoted in their first season and now play in the Premier League. The “signing” of Hleb, legitimate or not, was a clear marker of intent.
To be fair, signed or not, it’s unlikely he’d be strutting his stuff at Riffa Sports Club in the first round of Bahrain’s League Cup; the least important of the regular tournaments in Bahraini football. While league and King’s Cup games often seem to be scheduled at the bigger stadiums, these cup games have so far mainly been at the smaller ones that the clubs nominally call home.
I actually find my way to Riffa Sports Club first time (a first for me in Bahrain, where one missed exit or wrong turn can see you careering miles out of your way on a motorway). The Riffa complex is impressive, with a huge indoor sports centre and numerous artificial pitches. The ground itself is less so; just a single stand of around 1000 seats facing the clubhouse. Finally, blessedly, we have a nice little concession hut, selling drinks and snacks – something I really could’ve done with back in Hamad Town. It is once again punishingly hot, and I’m soon soaked to the skin. Autumn can’t come fast enough.
The match is feisty, with the no-nonsense ref stopping the game frequently to deliver stern bollockings (curiously, some of them in English, despite all the players appearing to be local – as expected, info in English is hard to come across for a minor tournament match like this). Despite both teams having regular chances the game remains goalless until Al Khaldiya snatch the win in the 85th minute, deflating a tenacious Isa Town team. A lot of hard work on display but precious little quality – Hleb would’ve sailed through this game, even at 40.
Al Khaldiya 1-0 Isa Town
Similar to Hamad Town, this is bare bones ground. It does have a nice sports centre attached and finally I seen some proper concessions (even the National Stadium just had a few vans outside). This is the third most important tournament in Bahrain so I wasn’t expecting much of an atmosphere, but about 80 people turned up in the sweltering heat, so kudos to them.
Riffa Sports Club Stadium
Capacity: ~1000 (by my count)
Wheelchair Accessible: Yes
I’m nearly halfway on my little odyssey, although there are apparently a few more grounds to add. Perhaps the border bridge to Saudi calls.