Status of women at Italian game in Saudi Arabia criticized

ROME (AP) — Facing increasing criticism by government members over the decision to play the Italian Super Cup in Saudi Arabia, Serie A’s president is hailing the match as a “historic” opportunity for Saudi women to attend an international soccer game.

After tickets for the Jan. 16 game between Juventus and AC Milan went on sale with specified sectors for “singles” and “families” to separate men and women, Interior Minister Matteo Salvini said it was “a shame” for the game to be played in a country where women can’t go to the stadium unless they are accompanied by men.

“I won’t watch that match,” added Salvini, an outspoken Milan fan who recently criticized the choices of coach Gennaro Gattuso. “Soccer is a slave to business and television.”

Numerous other Italian politicians also expressed outrage.

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Serie A president Gaetano Micciche responded by pointing out that women can go to the match unaccompanied by men.

“Our Super Cup will go down in history as the first official international competition that Saudi women can attend,” Micciche said Thursday in a long statement.

Women were allowed into Saudi sports stadiums a year ago for the first time to watch soccer matches, although they were segregated in the stands, sticking to the “family section” away from all-male crowds elsewhere.

Tickets for the game at the King Abdullah Sports City Stadium in Jeddah sold out in less than two days — with the first 50,000 tickets sold in a span of four hours.

There had already been calls for the match to be moved after the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.

While the game is slated to be broadcast domestically by RAI, the Italian state TV’s journalists’ union said recently that it was “absurd” and “unacceptable” for the game to be played in Saudi Arabia little more than three months after Khashoggi’s killing.

U.S. intelligence assessments and experts have said that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who controls all levers of power in Saudi Arabia, likely ordered or at least knew about the killing.

Saudi authorities say those who killed Khashoggi exceeded their authority, and prosecutors announced on Thursday they will seek the death penalty against five suspects in the slaying.

Human rights group Amnesty International has also voiced opposition to the match being played in Saudi Arabia.

Micciche said the Khashoggi killing prompted Serie A to question “what was the right thing to do” but that it decided it could not differ from Italy’s ongoing relations with Saudi Arabia.

“Soccer is part of Italy’s cultural and economic system and it can’t have different rationales, especially for international relations, from the country it belongs to,” Micciche said. “Saudi Arabia is Italy’s biggest commercial partner in the mideast.

“The match promotes ‘Made in Italy’ and its values.”

In June, the Italian league announced that it had agreed to a deal with Saudi Arabia’s General Sports Authority for three of the next five Super Cups to be played in the country. The deal will provide more than 20 million euros ($23 million) to Serie A and nearly 3.5 million euros to participating clubs.

The Italian Super Cup has been contested 11 times abroad before, most recently in Qatar in 2016, when Milan beat Juventus in a penalty shootout.

“This trophy, since its first edition abroad in 1993, has been a promotional opportunity for exporting and promoting Italian soccer around the world,” Micciche said.

Juventus qualified for the game by winning a seventh consecutive Serie A title while Milan qualified as the Italian Cup finalist.

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