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Italian Super Cup to be played against backdrop of protests

Juventus SELA Sponsor Event - Italian Supercup Previews

JEDDAH, SAUDI ARABIA - JANUARY 14: Miralem Pjanic, David Tezeguet former of Juventus and Paulo Dybala of Juventus attend the Juventus SELA sponsor event - Italian Supercup previews on January 14, 2019 in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. (Photo by Marco Rosi/Getty Images for Lega Serie A)

Getty Images for Lega Serie A

The Italian Super Cup showcasing the Serie A and Italian Cup champions is normally regarded as a friendly. But there’s nothing welcoming or sociable about the match on Wednesday.

Because it’s in Saudi Arabia.

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Italian politicians and human rights activists have objected to the game being played in Saudi Arabia, citing the assassination of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.

Against this backdrop of political outrage and protests, the match between Juventus and AC Milan is still slated to go ahead at King Abdullah Sports City Stadium in Jeddah, and both teams are already in the kingdom.

But more protests are planned.

The game is slated to be broadcast domestically by RAI, and the Italian state TV’s journalists’ union said recently it was “absurd” and “unacceptable” for the game to be in Saudi Arabia little more than three months after Khashoggi’s killing. The union has planned a protest for Wednesday at the Saudi Embassy in Rome, in agreement with other journalists’ unions and human rights group Amnesty International, under the slogan "(hashtag)UnCalcioAiDirittiUmani” (A Kick Against Human Rights).

“The Italian league, Juventus and Milan are giving this (a kick against human rights) with the decision to go out on the field in Jeddah, in Saudi Arabia, for the Italian Super Cup,” read a statement. “And everyone who has chosen silence is giving this. Accomplices.”

Last June, the Italian league announced it 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 3.5 million euros to participating clubs.

“Seven million euros,” the statement continued. “That is how much silence is worth in front of bombs which have been massacring civilians in Yemen for four years.

“In front of the enlistment of child soldiers. In front of the brutal murder ... of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi. In front of the investigations which have singled out as direct instigator Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. In front of a stadium with `sectors reserved for men.’ In front of a country where women’s rights are still crushed and many activists are in prison ...”

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 to the “family section” away from all-male crowds elsewhere, and those rules will be applied for Wednesday’s match, prompting some female fans to decide not to travel.

One such fan, 49-year-old lawyer Maria Luisa Garatti, is set to miss her first Milan match - home or away - in years.

“They conceded that women on their own could go to the match, but the fact remains that I would still have to watch it from a certain sector, far from my friends, with whom I couldn’t sing, show my support and raise the banner of my club,” Garratti told Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera.

“This segregation in separate sectors hurts me, and it hurts me that Italian football is accepting it.”

Tickets for the game nevertheless sold out in less than two days, with the first 50,000 sold in four hours.

The clubs are trying to distance themselves from the political issues.

“The Italian league made this contract and we have to go,” Juventus coach Massimiliano Allegri said on Friday. “And there’s been a little step forward, in that women can go to the match. Let’s look at the positive aspect.

“In any case, I believe Italy has economic and political relationships with Saudi Arabia. They told us to play there and we’re going.”

Juventus won the Serie A and Italian Cup last season - as it did in the previous three years - so the other spot was given to the Cup runner-up.

The game has been contested abroad 11 times previously, most recently in Qatar in 2016, when Milan beat Juventus in a penalty shootout. Normally the season curtain-raiser in August, the Italian Super Cup’s overseas scheduling has prompted a move to December or January, at the beginning or end of the winter break.