It is a shame that on the greatest night in Australian club football history, a pathetic serving of sour grapes will distort many of the headlines. The sight of Al-Hilal’s Nasser Al-Shamrani head-butting Western Sydney Wanderers’ defender Matthew Spiranovic as the match wound to a close was already bad enough. Little did we know worse was to come.
Spiranovic, a substitute, held his peace until the final whistle, only wanting to get the job done for his side.
When the match did eventually finish, drawn out for what felt like a small eternity, the Wanderers burst into celebration at the miracle duck-egg scoreboard. As is their right, as you would expect. As Al-Hilal would have done if the situation was reversed.
Still, Spiranovic wanted Al-Shamrani – nicknamed “The Earthquake” for his ability to shock the opposition – to know what he’d done was wrong; that he’d broken the unspoken rules of conduct that exist between fellow professionals.
The timing, perhaps, wasn’t ideal, but the striker’s response was beyond disgusting.
Not bothering to reply to Spiranovic with words, Al-Shamrani spat straight at the defender. Truly, an abominable act of sportsmanship. Unacceptable on every level, and no wonder a brawl nearly ensued.
The Asian Football Confederation should be moved to act against Al-Shamrani but in their swirling political waters it is hard – perhaps impossible – to predict what sanction he may receive.
In short, the Gulf giants are a big wheel, politically. It was the head of their football association, Hafez Al Medlej, who backed away from the AFC presidential election in 2013 to give Bahrain’s Sheikh Salman a smooth ride to the top. These things get remembered
As much as Al-Shamrani deserves a ban or a fine from Kuala Lumpur, it’s just as likely he’ll be on the receiving end of a keenly-worded press release. Asian football tends to be like that.
In some ways, the Saudi Arabian subterfuge only added to the greatness of the aggregate victory.
Aside from Al-Shamrani’s spittle, the repeated use of laser-pointers, designed to blaze the pupils of Ante Covic, was appalling. Guangzhou Evergrande fans did it to Covic a few months back, so at least he had experience of knowing what being blinded is like. Referees must surely halt play – perhaps even more – when this happens.
It is impossible to defend the actions of a select few, be they players or fans, not even with a healthy dose of cultural context. But it is possible to tap into the powder keg of pressure that has been building since the moment Al-Hilal arrived home to prepare for the second leg.
Whatever pressure the Wanderers were under, you can double or triple that for the Blue Wave. So much money, so many royal connections, so much history. But, on this occasion, too much pride for their own good.
Although well-behaved in Australia, once they returned to Riyadh, the club – from the vice-president to the coach and players – reflected the same will of Uruguay in November 2005; most memorably through Alvaro Recoba’s infamous “divine right” claim.
The Kingdom believed victory was only a matter of time, and the streets prepared for the inevitable celebration. The players willed it to happen but destiny was, for once, conspiring wildly in favour of an Australian team.
But unlike our club and country teams of yesteryear, at least the Wanderers knew what was coming.
“It’ll be a hostile crowd and they will bring out all the tricks to try and put us off our game,” Spiranovic told Fairfax Media this week. “But I think the boys are aware of that, we know what to expect.”
That they did, and Australia was done proud. The same cannot be said for Al-Shamrani, who did his best to bring infamy to his club and his country.
Should the two nations meet at January’s Asian Cup – a quarter-final meeting is every chance, where Spiranovic would again mark Al-Shamrani – don’t think this country will forget in a hurry, even if the governing body conveniently does.