Everybody who said they would go pulled out. Everybody who talked the talk were more than a little afraid to walk the walk. Just a couple of weeks after September 11, 2001, only a month into my sojourn in Jeddah, the predominantly Shia Muslim state of Iran were playing the overwhelmingly Sunni state of Saudi Arabia. It was one of THE most anticipated matches in Asian football with the two battling it out for a place in the World Cup 2002.
I pulled every string I could to get a ticket, finally being handed one by a prince I taught to join the Saudi supporters in the battle of Jeddah. It went wrong, sort of, after that.
I went alone to the game, my colleagues fearful of reprisals that only really occurred after the Iraqi invasion. But I wasn't too worried, until, that is, a Saudi policeman confiscated my ticket, tore it to shreds, and said, "Saudi's only". I was furious, and with my bag on my shoulder, headed for the opposite side of the stadium. I presented my Iqama (work permit) and conned my way right into the ground, claiming to be an Irish reporter. Of course, there was certain legitimacy to it; whoever finished second in this group would play Ireland in a playoff for a finals place. I hoped it would be the Saudis.
Inside the stadium I was placed with the Iranian fans, who threw smiles and oranges my way. In the stifling heat we watched the visiting team pelted with bottles and objects as they warmed up, but when the game started, it was Iran who was superior. The game ended 2-2, a fair result for the home team, while I wandered onto a bus going direct to Teheran (it actually began to move before I was allowed off).
I went to work the next morning with a story to tell and a badge of honour to share with my students. Saudi qualified directly (and played Ireland in the World Cup), while Ireland overcame Iran 2-1 in the play-off.
It was an innocent time in Jeddah, then, before Afghanistan-made local boy Osama. And if I had the chance to do it now?
Why not! But I think I'd cheer on Saudi this time!