News Al-Hilal set world record to reach Champions League semis

Merciless Al-Hilal fast becoming the Max Verstappen of the Saudi Pro League this season

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia welcomes the Formula 1 circus during the most dominant period by an individual and team in the sport’s long history — something fans of the Saudi Pro League are also experiencing. 

Dutchman Max Verstappen arrived in Jeddah looking for a second straight victory in the new F1 season, and on Friday secured yet another pole position.

His success, on the back of his all-conquering 2023 campaign, is ominous news for his rivals.

Verstappen won the final seven races last year and 17 out of the last 18, coming unstuck only in Singapore. With Red Bull taking the checkered flag in all but one of the 2023 Grand Prix, and with Verstappen on the top step of the podium in 19 of the 22, it is officially the most dominant period by an individual and team in F1 history.

While Jeddah’s street circuit enjoyed the glitz and the glamour, and Verstappen flexed his muscles, on Friday night, at the less salubrious surrounds of the Prince Faisal bin Fahd Stadium in Riyadh Al-Hilal delivered a landmark win to continue an equally dominant run of success in the SPL.

The 3-1 victory over Al-Riyadh put Al-Hilal 12 points clear at the top of the table and in pole position for a record 19th domestic league title. While there are still 11 games remaining, given their form this season it is hard to see anyone stopping them. Only the Cristano Ronaldo-driven Al-Nassr had any realistic chance before, and now that looks to have disappeared.

Remarkably, the Riyadh giants are yet to taste defeat this season in any competitive game. Following their 2-0 win over reigning Saudi champions Al-Ittihad in the first leg of their AFC Champions League quarter final and last night’s win, their current winning streak sits at a world record-equaling 27.

To be clear, that is not a 27-game streak where they are undefeated — it is a 27-game run of victories. 

It matched the existing world record, as noted by the Guinness Books of Records, held by Welsh side The New Saints in 2016.

Next up for the merciless Hilal is a trip to Jeddah for the second leg of their Champions League tie with Al-Ittihad — where a new world record-setting 28th straight win could be on the cards.  

The achievements of both Al-Hilal and Max Verstappen, although in different fields, are pure sporting excellence.

There may be grumblings about over-dominance and lack of competition within both F1 and the SPL. However, while valid, these are not the concern of either football team or driver. Their job is to perform at their peak and win for as long and as frequently as they can. 

This is what separates the good from the great.

At its core, sport is a meritocracy. It rewards those who do a better job than their opposition. At the moment, in their respective competitions, Verstappen and Al-Hilal are performing at a level far above that of anyone else.

As “boring” as such dominance may be — which is subjective in any case — there comes a point when even the greatest cynic has to stop and appreciate such consistency and level of performance.

What we are witnessing is something close to sporting perfection, which is incredibly rare in modern sport.

Worryingly for their opponents, neither Al-Hilal nor Verstappen show any signs of slowing down in their pursuit of that perfection. This might not thrill fans of their rivals, but as Verstappen told ESPN last year: “I don’t think it was necessarily bad what was happening to Formula One because we were just better than everyone else. If people can’t appreciate that, then you are not a real fan.”

Whether he was right in his assertion, his point remains valid.

Sport is entertainment and we would love every title race to come down to the wire. The controversial finish to the 2021 F1 championship battle in Abu Dhabi, the final day of the 2008 SPL season when Al-Hilal snatched the title from Al-Ittihad — both remain the topic of lively and heated debate to this day.

But sport is also about the pursuit of excellence and we should appreciate those who achieve it rather than bemoan any lack of competitiveness by others.

While their longstanding rivalry means Al-Hilal’s welcome to Jeddah next week might not be especially hospitable — Al-Ittihad would love nothing more than to deny them a slice of history — at least Saudi sports fans can show their appreciation for the remarkable Max Verstappen on Saturday night.