RIYADH, January 14 (CIC) – Thousands of cheering and flag-waving female football fans took King Fahd International Stadium by a storm on Saturday night to support their favourite team in the professional league game that pitted Al-Hilal against Al-Ittihad, the first ever Saudi ‘Classico’ game of top teams attended by women in the Kindgom’s history.
It was clear from the opening whistle that many of the women spectators were football fans. Die-hard football fans. Scores of women in small and big groups across the stadium waved Al-Ittihad’s yellow and black banners or Al-Hilal’s blue and white flags, lifting their arms in the air each time it looked a goal was in progress. The women joined other family members in enthusiastically singing their team anthems intermittently.
“I’m not only here because I’m a football fan but I’m here because I’m proud of what’s happening in my country; I love Al-Ittihad and I’m a die-hard Al-Ittihad fan,” said Lama, a 30-year-old businesswoman.
The spirited game between two of the country’s top football clubs ended in a 1-1 draw. The game’s first match was scored by Al-Hilal’s Mukhtar Fallatah with a header in minute 57, with the equalizer from Al-Ittihad’s Fahd Al-Ansari, in the 63rd minute via a powerful kick.
Teams of female ushers, wearing blue tops over their black abayas, guided the women and other family members to their seats in special sections of the stadium. According to the organisers, more than 7,000 seats were allocated for women in the stadium that has a capacity of over 68,000.
“I am extremely glad to be here where the history is made. Attending sports matches is not just an opportunity for women to show their support to their teams but also to be part of the historical social reforms lead by HRH Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman,” said Manal Al Buraik, Saudi Entrepreneur, 40, speaking in the Al-Hilal crowd section.
“On the other hand, officially, Saudi women now have a major role and effect in the sports industry by investing their money, and getting more jobs.“
Saturday night’s game was the second in a series of three which women were allowed to attend this month by the General Sports Authority, a move that was hailed by many Saudis as very progressive.
On Friday, for the first time ever, more than 3,000 women stepped into Pearl Stadium in Jeddah’s King Abdullah Sports City – and history – as they watched in person Al-Ahli beat Al-Batin 5-0 in the game played in the Red Sea port city. The third league game that women will be allowed to attend pits Al-Ittifaq and Al-Faisali on Thursday January 18 at Prince Mohammed bin Fahd Stadium in Dammam.
In October, the General Sports Authority (GSA) issued a decision that as of early 2018 the three stadiums, previously male-only facilities, will be prepared to be ready for families, including allocation of special places for seating and entrances.
The GSA decision to open stadiums for women spectators was one of a series of landmark decisions last year empowering women in the Kingdom, following King Salman’s historic announcement in September that women would be allowed to drive from June 2018.
“It’s a superb feeling. I am sure all women who have come here are feeling the same way. As for me, it’s not so much about football as it is about inclusiveness and social equality,” said one Saudi woman watching the Saturday game in Riyadh.
“I was worried of Attending a football match because I didn’t know how things going to be organized,” said Roaa Al Harbi, a law student, 23. “Now, I feel very optimistic about upcoming sports events. I can attend matches and have fun at the same. Also, I discovered that it’s not just a match but it’s an entertainment experience as well.”
Men in the crowd also expressed their happiness for being there with their women folk.
“A great development has taken place in our country. It’s a historic moment. This is all about an inclusive society,” said Abdulrahman Mohammed, a 30-year-old banker who accompanied three female relatives next to him to the stadium.
“This development should have happened 30 years ago. But it’s better late than never. And here I am with three of my female family members. I am feeling great as they are enjoying the game.”
Non-Saudis in the crowd were equally pleased at attending the game and what it symbolises.
“It’s a brilliant experience. I have been raised in this country, but never have I ever experienced such a phenomenon. It feels great. It feels satisfying. It feels fulfilling. It’s my adopted homeland. So this inclusivity and recognition has a huge significance for me. We have come a long way,” said Fatemah Khan, 26, a Pakistani expatriate and a management professional.
One of the attendees of Saturday’s game in Riyadh was Princess Reema bint Bandar, an advocate for women’s sports who last year became the first woman to be appointed as head of a Saudi sports federation, the Saudi Federation for Mass Participation, and who also serves as Deputy for Planning and Development at GSA. She shook hands with some of the women and families attending.
Outside the stadium, there was a festive atmosphere as women painted hearts on the faces of children with the colours of their favorite teams, among other activities organised by GSA and the sports federation headed by Princess Reema.
“This is a joyous day; tonight we all stand together, teams aren’t the main focal point; us attending is,” Layla told Arab News during the Saturday night game. “And we will cheer until our throats go sore.”