The intense rivalry between Al Hilal and Al Ittihad will be put to the test once again as the Saudi Arabian powerhouses prepare to face off in the King Salman Cup.
The conclusion of the group stage action of the tournament saw Al Ittihad and Al Hilal record 2-1 victories over Iraq’s Al Shorta and Morocco’s Wydad respectively to book their places in the quarter-finals.
The results also meant the two Saudi sides will lock horns in the knockout round, with Al Ittihad topping Group A with the full nine points, and Al Hilal finishing as Group B runners-up. Their clash in Taif on Saturday not only brings some of the biggest stars in the region face to face, but also carries decades of history, rivalry and tradition with it.
While Saudi Arabia’s two major derbies are those in the capital Riyadh between Al Hilal and Al Nassr and in Jeddah between Al Ahli and Al Ittihad, the game between Al Hilal and Al Ittihad has grown in stature, earning the nickname ‘the Saudi clasico’.
Just like the original clasico between Real Madrid and Barcelona, its Saudi counterpart pits a team from the capital against one from the main coastal metropolis. And this too is a match between two of the most successful clubs in the region.
Al Ittihad are Saudi Arabia’s oldest existing football club, tracing its roots to 1927 - mere months after King Abdulaziz Al Saud declared Jeddah and the western Hejaz region part of the newly unified kingdom. Al Hilal came into existence three decades later, initially under the name ‘Olympic Club’ in Riyadh.
But it wasn’t until the late mid 1960s that the two sides crossed paths.
With a nationwide league still a decade away, the King’s Cup was the most prominent competition bringing together the top teams from around Saudi Arabia.
Al Ittihad and Mecca-based Al Wehda dominated the early years of the competition, with one or both of them appearing in every final between 1957 and 1961. Al Hilal then entered the frame, beating Al Wehda to end the duopoly in 1961. Two years later, they went head-to-head with Al Ittihad in the final, and it was the Jeddah side that emerged triumphant in the first-ever Saudi clasico, winning 3-0 to lift the 1963 King’s Cup.
A year later, Al Hilal took their revenge, beating their new rivals after a penalty shootout in the final to regain the trophy. For decades after that, both sides established themselves as part of the nation’s dominant quartet, with success ebbing and flowing between the pair alongside Al Ahli and Al Nassr.
In the mid-1990s, the rivalry took on a more intense form. This period coincided with the return of foreign players to the league and the introduction of fully professional Saudi players, which allowed the two massively popular clubs to translate their revenues into an ability to recruit the best local talent and cast their net beyond Saudi Arabia to attract players from places like South America, Africa and the rest of the Arab world.
Before the likes of Karim Benzema, N’Golo Kante and Fabinho, Ittihad attracted names like Italy’s Roberto Donadoni, Sierra Leone’s Mohamed Kallon and Mexico’s Jared Borgetti, while Al Hilal’s international heroes of that period included former Manchester United winger Andrei Kanchelskis and Morocco’s Salaheddine Bassir, who was part of Deportivo La Coruna’s historic La Liga winning side of 2001.
If one name embodied that era of success at Ittihad, it was local hero Mohammed Noor - the brilliant midfielder who captained the club for the best part of a decade and lifted the AFC Champions League trophy twice.
At Al Hilal, Sami Al Jaber established himself as arguably the greatest player in the nation’s history, becoming the first Asian player to score in three FIFA World Cups (1994, 1998 and 2006).
Between 1995 and 2011, the two clubs won seven titles each, with only Al Shabab’s two titles breaking their 16-year-long hold of the Saudi league. The competition between them extended to the continental front too, with Al Hilal winning two AFC Champions League (then known as Asian Club Championship) titles in the 1990s, and Ittihad matching them with back-to-back titles in 2004 and 2005.
The year 2009 marked the last time Al Ittihad were on top of their game, when they reached their third Champions League final in five years, losing to Japan’s Gamba Osaka, while winning the league title for the third time in six years. Since then, Al Hilal have dominated, winning two more champions league titles and sweeping seven of the next 13 league titles.
With Al Ittihad now back as league champions and having bolstered their ranks with the signing of Ballon d’Or winner Benzema among others, and Al Hilal now among the top three highest spending clubs in the world, Saturday’s quarter-final in Taif promises to be a new a chapter in an eternal rivalry that has arguably shaped the history of Saudi Arabian football.