Saudi Arabia have been bringing the noise in Qatar. Fans have travelled in numbers greater than any other country, with only Argentina coming close. The emerald green shirt is a common sight across Doha. They’re on the corniche and in the metro and, in their first two Group C fixtures, they have generated a fearsome atmosphere within the ground.
It may seem an observation that ought not to have to be made, but the Saudi fanbase in Qatar is made up of both men and women. At Education City on Saturday afternoon, perhaps one in 20 of those making their way into the stadium were female, making them equivalent to the number of women there to support Poland. This is a first.
Three years ago, as part of a series of reforms, a decree from the Saudi royal family announced that women would be allowed to leave the country without first acquiring the consent of their male guardian. The guardianship system remains, and applies to every woman throughout their lives, with the role of guardian transferring from father to husband. But it does not apply in as many aspects as it once did – which means that going to this neighbouring World Cup, for a country that is demonstrably football mad, is now possible for everyone.
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Talking to female supporters before the match was not easy. Requests to talk were politely turned down and business cards offering the opportunity to talk later – just about the football – were returned. One woman, wearing the niqab, agreed to speak. Her name was Aliya, it was her first time watching her national side and she was optimistic: “Inshallah we will win.” She said she was excited about being part of the experience: “I am looking forward to the cheering and the people in there, the whole experience”. Her husband took over. “This is the World Cup – this is what it means,” he said. “Saudi will go to the next stage, we will have female teams and a female league. Our new president supports everything and ladies come first.”
The president of the Saudi Arabian Football Federation is Yasser al-Misehal, a former chair of the Saudi men’s professional league and a member of Fifa’s disciplinary committee. It is true he has presided over rapid change in the women’s game in the country. Two years ago the Saudi Women’s Premier League was established, the first national competition for women’s club sides. Then, in the spring of this year, a potentially more momentous event occurred: a first international fixture, with Saudi Arabia women beating the Seychelles 2-0 in a friendly in Mauritius, the first step on a proposed pathway into the official Fifa classification.
The growth of the women’s game comes a decade after Saudi officials were lobbying Fifa to ban the wearing of the hijab in football, a measure that would prevent women from playing the game at all. Five years ago women were not allowed into stadiums as spectators, the ban eventually lifted in three venues at the beginning of 2018. That these changes have been made at the same time as Saudi looks to claim a more central role in the sporting world, and with a potential bid for the 2030 World Cup on the way, may not be a coincidence. But they are real.
A few minutes after I spoke to Aliya, Mariam Meshikhes walked past with her friend. Mariam lives in the east of Saudi Arabia, was attending her first match and wearing a replica Saudi away shirt and a light green hijab. It was fair to say she was not reluctant to talk about the experience.
“This is my first World Cup, this is my first game I have ever attended in a stadium for the Saudi national team – this has been my dream since I was a teenager,” she said. “I have watched all the games. As a teenager I watched all of them and I was just wishing to be there and I can’t believe that this is the day.”
At this point her friend, an engineer, observed that Mariam, a doctor, had left her twins at home with her husband. “They’re OK, they’re OK,” she said. “They know I’m happy.”
What, Mariam was asked, did she think female football fans bring to a previously all-male crowd? “Well, civility, obviously,” she smiled. “Females are needed everywhere; we’re 50% of our country – more than 50% of our country, right? She’s an engineer, I’m a doctor so we’re already participating in our country. Now it’s amazing that we are able to participate in rooting for our country in the World Cup. And to attend when they are on a winning streak – inshallah – and hopefully they win and they have a very big chance to be the first qualifier to the 16th round, was just ... you have no idea ... this is the greatest day of my life.”
Of course football doesn’t always make dreams come true and Poland won a well-contested match 2-0. Now the Saudis face a final fixture against Mexico needing at least a point to qualify, and no doubt a stirring speech from their coach, René Hervard, will be forthcoming. But the stars of the Poland match were as much the Saudi crowd as the players and they will be out in force at the 88,966-capacity Lusail Stadium on Wednesday. Much has been made of the means by which countries use sport to burnish their reputations, but there can be few more effective ambassadors for Saudi Arabia right now than their supporters.