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Saudi Arabia to host Italian Super Cup, but gender-segregated crowds divide football fans

Cristiano Ronaldo of Juventus arrives to Jeddah Airport before the Italian SuperCup between Juventus and AC Milan on January 14, 2019 in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Source: Getty Images Europe

Football fans are used to being split by rivalry, but Italian fans are facing divisions based on gender as Saudi Arabia prepares to host the Italian Super Cup in a few hours.

The Italian Super Cup (Supercoppa Italiana) is a trophy contended for every year by the winning teams of Italy's national league (Serie A) and national cup (Coppa Italia). But this week, the derby of Italian champions will be held in Jeddha, Saudi Arabia (Thursday, January 17, 4:30am AEST).

Juventus will face AC Milan in a sold-out match at King Abdullah Sports City stadium, where Juventus star Cristiano Ronaldo will be the centre of attention in his team's star-spangled lineup.

But criticism of the decision to stage the match in Saudi Arabia, where female spectators will be segregated from most of their male counterparts, is threatening to overshadow the game.

Matteo Salvini, Italy's deputy prime minister and interior minister, is among the most vocal of high profile politicians criticising the decision, saying it is "disgusting" that such an important game would be played in a country where restrictions will be in place on female fans.

Salvini, who is the leader of hard-line anti-immigration right-wing League party (La Lega), condemned the fact that sections of the stadium will be reserved for men only.

But members of the political and academic worlds SBS Italian spoke to have different opinions, ranging from seeing the game as an opportunity to shed light on the plight of Saudi women, to regarding the current debate as futile and misleading.

Milan Juve
AC Milan's Samuel Castillejo, left, looks at Juventus' Cristiano Ronaldo during a Serie A match between AC Milan and Juventus, at Milan's San Siro stadium.

Salvini, who - according to recent polls - is the most popular politician in Italy, is a fervent AC Milan fan, often following his team at the stadium. In a video posted to Facebook last week he said, "That the Italian Super Cup is played in an Islamic country where women can't go to the stadium if not accompanied by men is sad, a pile of rubbish. Even if I am an AC Milan supporter I won't watch the game. I do not want a similar future in Italy for our daughters".

The Italian football league defended the decision to hold the game in Saudi Arabia, and clarified that Salvini's claims that women will not be able to enter the game's venue without men are incorrect.

The league's president, Gaetano Micciché, said, "Until last year, women could not attend any sporting event [in Saudi Arabia]. We are working to ensure that in the next games that we play in the country, women can access all the stadium seats."

Saudi Arabia's Al Hilal's fans cheer before the Asian Champions League Final second leg soccer match between Al Hilal and Western Sydney Wanderers at King Fahd stadium in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Saturday, Nov. 1, 2014. (AP Photo)
Saudi Arabia's Al Hilal's fans before the Asian Champions League Final between Al Hilal and Western Sydney at King Fahd stadium in Riyadh, Nov. 1, 2014.

According to Professor Lucia Sorbera, Director of the Department of Arab Studies at the University of Sydney, the key question to ask is whether the Italian football world "can give anyone a lesson about women and gender equality."

"The Italian football league would have had many reasons for not accepting the Saudi invitation," she said. "Even before the Jamal Khashoggi affair, the poor record of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia on human rights was not a mystery to anyone."

Italian Senator Lucio Malan, deputy leader of center-right party Forza Italia (lead by former PM and AC Milan former owner Silvio Berluconi), told SBS Italian that Italian football should have decided to move the game elsewhere earlier and not this close to the game.

Malan was also the first Italian politician to re-tweet Saudi teen Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun's appeal for help, asking Rome's government to provide asylum and openly criticising Saudi Arabia's treatment of women.

"We know that women in Saudi Arabia are in an unacceptable situation" he said. "However, it is always problematic to apply a political logic to sport events, even when this logic is commendable."

"If we decide to do [shift the match], then we should not hold sport events in many countries, as in many of them they discriminate against women, while in others there is no freedom of religion. But sport can create unity and is a unique occasion to open some new horizons.

"The fact that there are protests is an opportunity to talk about the problems of Saudi women but we cannot ask football to solve the problems of the world."

According to Senator Malan, boycotting a sport event based on political reasons is never a good idea as it further isolates the boycotted country, rather than building possible bridges.

AC Milan team celebrates after winning the Italian Super Cup soccer match against Juventus, at the Al Sadd Sports Club in Doha, Qatar, Dec. 23, 2016.

Could the Italian Super Cup have a positive effect on women's rights in Saudi Arabia, or is this debate evidence of a prevailing Islamophobic attitude?

According to Professor Sorbera, Saudi Arabia's problems run deep but reasonable opposition to violations of human rights should not be confused or generate forms of Islamophobia.

"What does opposition to Saudi Arabia's politics have to do with Islamophobia and racism?," she asks. "Nothing! It has nothing to do with it. It is possible to challenge this regime without being Islamophobic and racist."

Professor Sorbera says Saudi Arabia does not represent the entirety of the Arab culture.

"Quite the contrary. It has never been one of the centres of knowledge production and it does not represent the entirety of Islamic cultures, which are diverse."

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