Cristiano Ronaldo’s Juventus target their first title of 2019 in the Italian Super Cup on Wednesday against a backdrop of controversy and protests over human rights issues and ticket restrictions imposed on female fans by hosts Saudi Arabia.
The one-off match is normally between the reigning Serie A and Italian Cup champions. As Juventus won both trophies last season they will take on AC Milan, the losing cup finalists, at King Abdullah Sports City Stadium, in Jeddah.
It will the 10th time the Super Cup final has been played abroad in 31 editions, with the United States, China and Qatar hosting previous matches.
But not since the 2002 choice of the Libyan capital Tripoli has there been such heated discussion.
Human rights and other issues have overshadowed the buildup, with Amnesty International urging both teams to shun the match over the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
Anger was further inflamed when Serie A released information on how to get tickets, saying some category of seats were only available for men and that women could only gain access by buying tickets in “family” areas in the 60,000-seater stadium.
Matteo Salvini, Italy’s deputy prime minister, condemned the restrictions as “disgusting”.
“To have the Italian Supercoppa being played in an Islamic country where women cannot go to the stadium unless they are accompanied by a man is sad. It’s disgusting. I won’t watch the game,” said Salvini, a passionate AC Milan fan.
The head of the Serie A, Gaetano Micciche, defended the decision to play in Saudi Arabia as an historic one.
“Until last year, women (in Saudi Arabia) could not attend any sporting event,” he said.
“We are working to ensure that in the next games that we play in the country, women can access all the stadium seats.”
Riyadh, long known for imposing harsh restrictions on women, last year eased decades-old rules separating the sexes to allow women to enter football stadiums for the first time.
‘Different type of game’
Juventus’s Brazilian defender Alex Sandro said he was expecting “a different type of game”.
“I’ve been there (Jeddah) with Brazil already and I think the Saudis have taken a step forward. They have a different fan base and culture, but I think it’ll be a good final.”
Qatari broadcaster beIN Sports also asked Italian football bosses to call off the match amid claims that Saudi-backed channels are pirating live feeds of games, including Serie A fixtures.
Qatar is under a Saudi-led economic boycott amid tensions in the region.
On the pitch, seven-time reigning Italian league champions Juventus — powered by Portuguese superstar Cristiano Ronaldo — will be looking to continue to steamroller their rivals.
Massimiliano Allegri’s side are unbeaten so far in Serie A, and will be pushing for their first title of the season, which they hope will also include the Champions League.
Ronaldo is top of the Serie A scorers chart with 14 goals since arriving last summer from Real Madrid on a 110-million-euro ($126 million) deal.
But Juventus’s record is mixed in recent Super Cups having won just one of the last four editions — losing to AC Milan in 2016 and Lazio last year.
Both Juventus and AC Milan have won seven Super Cup titles each since the trophy was first awarded in 1988.
The game in Jeddah could also be a farewell one for AC Milan forward Gonzalo Higuain, who will be looking for revenge against his parent club Juventus ahead of a touted move to Chelsea.
Higuain — who moved to Milan to make way for Ronaldo — missed a penalty and was sent off when AC Milan lost 2-0 to Juventus the last time the two sides met in the league last November.