Moscow: In jeans, headscarves and veils, dozens of Saudi women draped in their country’s green flag and sporting matching face paint streamed into Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium on Thursday to support their national team against Russia in the World Cup’s opening match.
More importantly, perhaps, they were projecting the image of a new Saudi Arabia in which they are emerging from inequality as part of ambitious reforms undertaken by Mohammad Bin Salman Al Saud, Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia.
Saudi women were allowed into sports stadiums in January for the first time to watch football matches.
Saudi authorities have also lifted the world’s only ban on women driving.
“If we are to talk big picture, then I say that women coming to Russia to support the national team is another step toward equality,” said Nada Altuwaijry, a British-educated media expert from Saudi capital Riyadh who says she has been passionate about football since she was age 12.
“Eventually, we will achieve equality between men and women. I am very optimistic. Randomly pick up any person and ask him what he or she thinks of Saudi Arabia and the answer will be very positive,” said the 27-year-old, who sported green face paint.
Russian President Vladimir Putin declared the World Cup open after a colourful opening ceremony at the 81,000-seater Luzhniki Stadium.
“The love of football unites the world in one team, independent of language or ideology,” the Russian president stated during his speech.
Artistic performances from English pop star Robbie Williams and Russian operatic soprano Aida Garifullina were the highlights of the opening ceremony.
Putin said football and politics have nothing to do with each other, yet the World Cup he’s hosting is about much more than a ball game.
As the month-long tournament opened, Putin is seeking to prove to the world that Russia is a global power broker and an open, confident nation. Russians hope it dispels their country’s image as an isolated, repressive place hobbled by sanctions.
“Football and love” was the theme of the show ahead of Thursday’s match.
However, singer Williams raised eyebrows around the world when he appeared to give an obscene middle-finger gesture to the camera while singing his hit song Rock DJ.
Football fans took to Twitter after the performance, criticising Williams for his lack of respect, while others said it was a gesture to those who claimed he had sold out to perform at the show, saying he did the gig for free.
Prince Mohammad was in attendance at the ceremony and the opening game alongside Putin, but it was the Russian premier who was smiling most as his side dominated proceedings during the match.
It was an early start for the players who had to warm up before the ceremony, but they were greeted warmly by a largely Russian crowd at Luzhniki Stadium.
As the stadium filled, however, it was clear to see fans from many nations, not only those of the host country and Saudi Arabia, with Mexican sombreros, and flags from various South American countries on show.