A sea of black and white scarves, turned by jubilant home fans who taunt their rivals to a point where tensions almost flared. The streets of Riyadh were later flooded with those same fans, elated by his speech on the title. This is probably how Newcastle United thought things would turn out quickly for them under the ownership of the Saudi Arabian state.
It was actually the scene of a match between two of this city’s oldest soccer rivals on Friday night, the quality and company of which contributed to the feeling that the country’s new Premier League acquisition has its work cut out. registering in the public consciousness here.
It was a 1-0 win for Al-Shabab, Saudi soccer’s Newcastle United, you might call them, against Al-Nassr, the nation’s fallen giants, who won the title three times in the past decade, but whose fans tell you to a visiting Englishman: “Now we are his Manchester United.”
Sportsmail recently attended a derby in Riyadh where no women were present, despite a large crowd watching.
It was a 1-0 win for Al-Shabab against Al-Nassr, two of Riyadh’s oldest soccer rivals, on a Friday night in the city.
The morning after the match, only the men gathered at the corners and bazaars of Al-Safat Square in Riyadh.
Newcastle had to prove that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has nothing to do with the Public Investment Fund, which owns 80 percent of the Premier League club.
The performance of the talented Al-Nassr midfielder Abdulmajeed Al-Sulaiheem and forward Vincent Aboubakar overshadowed much of what is on display in St James’ Park these days, but these people were too inconsolable to admit it.
Soccer is in his blood here. The best games of the cup attract 60,000 fans. They don’t need other equipment.
The derby night experience brings many familiar reactions from Al-Nassr fans, decked out in their replica yellow jerseys.
Arabic “man on” warnings. Ironic cheers when an Al-Shabab fan in a black and white headscarf perched on his traditional ghutra walks away for taking the taunts too far. And silent prayers.
Full-time, 30 fans look to the east and kneel in supplication on the long carpet that is laid out for them in the parking lot.
But a strange aspect of this scene is unmissable: the total absence of women. Not a single female face among the approximately 6,000 supporters at the stadium in central Riyadh. Not a single daughter was brought in and encouraged to watch.
This does not seem to worry the assembled men much. An Al-Nassr fan calling himself “Pete”, an Arabic teacher and translator, does not consider a “male” activity such as soccer to be “a women’s game.”
The chauvinism runs deep, perhaps explaining why only men gather on the street corners and bazaars of Al-Safat square, on the morning after the match. An occasional woman is deposited in a vehicle and goes directly and efficiently to a store. But none last.
There was not a single female face among the roughly 6,000 fans in the stadium for the Saudi Pro League match.
Yasir Al-Rumayyan (left) is the new chairman of Newcastle United after its £ 305 million takeover led by Saudi Arabia
Much has been made of Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman finally allowing legislation to allow women to drive here. No one in this district seems to be allowed to seize the opportunity.
This is a subject to be approached only delicately. “We are a country with our ways and approaches and we don’t tell them what theirs should be,” says an Al-Nassr fan, at one of the roadside hookah bars near the stadium. Which seems to be as far as this conversation could go.
It certainly cannot and will not become a search for women’s thoughts. A superficial joke to someone near Al-Safat Square does not provoke eye contact, much less a word. The men start drinking coffee with milk in the elegant cafes on the edge of the square. This new sophistication of retail cannot hide the fact that the square, which is being watered in the mid-morning sun, is where state executions are taking place.
Newcastle fans are delighted with the new owners and have been wearing traditional Saudi clothing in St James’ Park
Everyone knows that challenging orthodoxies can have consequences here. Dina Ali Lasloom tried to flee to Australia to escape abuse and a forced marriage three years ago. She was forcibly returned by “relatives” and has not been seen or heard from since. The Newcastle women’s team has not spoken publicly on the matter, but Ms Lasloom’s disappearance is something they will be asked about in time.
Buying Newcastle is designed to touch up inconvenient details like that. In truth, Riyadh, a desperately worn and largely impoverished city, could use the state oil riches that are being lavished on the club for a working public transportation system. No one here dares to make that point. Newcastle. It is our future, ”says an Al-Nassr supporter at Friday’s game. “It means that people will see who we are and help us put ourselves on the map,” says another.
The ‘United’ people want to talk about the most is the Old Trafford team. The arrival of Cristiano Ronaldo there has clearly increased the ‘support’ of the club among teenagers. But the overwhelming presence of the Premier League in Riyadh soccer minds is Mohammed Salah, a Middle Eastern legend, not just Egyptian. ‘Liverpool, Liverpool, Mo Salah,’ yells a boy in his 10s, hanging from a car window after Friday’s game.
Riyadh could use the state wealth spent in Newcastle for a functioning public transport system.
There is little interest in Newcastle at present and most eyes are on Mohamed Salah (right) over Allan Saint-Maximin.
At a coffee shop, negotiation was required to change the Arabic guitar music channel to Newcastle vs Brighton
“Newcastle should bring a big name next year and that would make a big difference in how people feel about the club here,” says translator Pete. Salah’s coming would be huge. Then everyone would be a Newcastle fan. ‘
For now, it is going slow. The clothing stores in the Ad-Dirah district have shelves with replica tops, genuine and faux, for all the major clubs, although those in Newcastle are not among them. The same thing happens on the elegant Boulevard, where the richest people go.
And it is equally difficult to find a television program of the game on Saturday night in Brighton. “Sorry, we have a band playing,” says Al Aseel Cafe, a popular live television sports venue. The head of the Sports Cafe also says “no”, despite its large number of screens. “Only Saudi leagues, Champions League and Liverpool FC.”
Across the Boulevard, at a cafe called ‘Tim Hortons,’ some negotiation is required for the channel to switch from Arabic guitar music to the Amex Stadium broadcast, even though only eight people watch.
When asked to name a Newcastle player, one of them responds: “The legend Alan Shearer”, although Soud quotes Allan Saint-Maximin and Martin Dubravka. “Real Madrid is really my team,” he confesses.
Just before break, he and his friend fall asleep. “I hope things get better for you,” he says.