Football: One small step inside, one giant step for womankind in Saudi Arabia as country opens up its stadiums for the first time

Al Hilal fans cheer on the Saudi team against Japan's Urawa Red Diamonds in November 2017..
Al Hilal fans cheer on the Saudi team against Japan's Urawa Red Diamonds in November 2017..PHOTO: REUTERS

(THE GUARDIAN) - Forget Philippe Coutinho to Barcelona , the biggest move in the world of football this month will come on Friday (Jan 12) as women travel inside a Saudi Arabian stadium to watch a professional game from the stands for the first time in the country's history.

Al-Ahli will be trying to close the gap at the top of the Saudi Premier League behind Al-Hilal with a win over Al Batin but more attention will be paid to the make-up of those in the crowd.

Until now in the country, ranked by the World Economic Forum in 2016 as 141th out of 144 nations on gender parity, women have been forced to watch the beautiful game on television as those who dared to venture inside a stadium, as one woman did in December 2014, have been arrested.

No longer - the Saudi government announced in October that the longstanding ban was coming to an end, in at least in three stadiums to start with.

Arenas in Riyadh, Jeddah and the eastern city of Dammam will have special sections for female fans.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who was elevated to his current position last July, has been easing restrictions on women with the driving ban is set to be lifted in June.

After the 32-year-old allowed women into a Riyadh stadium in September to celebrate the country's national day in a move that went well, the next step was obvious.

It is set to be a significant one, not least as there is genuine passion for sports in all sections of Saudi Arabia.

Ghadah Grrah could not watch her favourite team Al-Hilal even in the final of the 2014 Asian Champions League though female fans of Western Sydney Wanderers were allowed inside the King Fahd Stadium.

Her wait, however, is finally coming to an end.

"It can be hard to have to watch your team only on television especially when it is a big game or a final, but now my wish is coming true," the 22 year-old told The Guardian.

The fact that it is a huge game against rivals Al-Ittihad of Jeddah, another national and continental rival, just adds to the anticipation.

"I don't know how to describe my feelings to you," she added. "I have been waiting since I became a fan in 2010 and it is such a pleasure to go to a match for my favourite team in Saudi Arabia. I am very excited."

Saudi Arabia is an Asian powerhouse with numerous continental titles at club and country level.

The national team reached the second round in their first World Cup appearance in 1994 and celebrated qualification for their fifth World Cup in September.

Coach Bert van Marwijk was quickly released and his successor Edgardo Bauza was fired two months later and replaced by Juan Antonio Pizzi.

Decision-making by the Saudi Arabian Football Federation may be erratic but the government's decision to allow women into stadiums is anything but, according to Jeddah-based journalist Aseel Bashraheel.

"There are many female fans in Saudi Arabia," she said. "Many of my female friends and family are huge football enthusiasts. I've been to my share of cafes in Jeddah on many game nights and I've witnessed all the ladies around me watching the games animatedly and cheering loudly with their husbands and kids. I've seen my aunt and uncle cheer for opposing teams and then bicker and tease each other when their teams win or lose."

It is expected that there will be an major influx of women for the opening games before a lull, with numbers hopefully gradually increasing over the months and years to come.

"There will be a lot of women attending games as they have been waiting for this for many years," said Khalin Ghadin of the Saudi Premier League, although the official acknowledged that there had been some negative reaction on social media.

"There was some criticism. Any decision brings criticism but most people support it."

Bashraheel knows that it will take time for more conservative elements in the country to be won over.

"There were those who welcomed the decision and expressed their eagerness to attend a family-oriented football match. And then there were others who believed the decision goes against Saudi's culture and tradition."

That culture may be not quite as immovable as previously thought.

"Society is changing in Saudi Arabia but I also believe there's always room for more change."

For Grrah, it is a good start and the Al-Hilal fanatic believes that Saudi football was never solely a male preserve anyway.

"Saudi women have long been involved in the culture of football, this was never applicable to men only. If a woman is at the stadium with her husband, father or brother, the players will be more excited. We have been waiting for a long time and this is a new feeling for everyone. I think it will be a wonderful event."