The story behind the photo: Confederations Cup unites

Soviet and Russian sports journalism boasts an eventful history, and football is a big part of it. This section is about famous sports and football photographs and celebrated Soviet and Russian sports photographers.
Share 22 July 2016
Allsport UK /Allsport
Fans at a Group A Confederations Cup game between Brazil and Saudi Arabia (3-0), King Fahd Stadium, Riyadh, 12 December 1997

We continue our column about the history of sports journalism today with the story of a foreign photograph, which pertains to the history of the Confederations Cup, a tournament coming to Russia soon.

The photo shows a multitude of fans during a match between Saudi Arabia and Brazil at King Fahd Stadium in Riyadh. This was the first official tournament of the Confederations Cup.

The FIFA Confederations Cup originated in the Middle East as a successor to some private football tournaments hosted by Saudi Arabia, which were contested by the Saudi side and the continental champions. Those tournaments were named the King Fahd Cup, in honour of the Saudi monarch who lavished money on his favourite game. The 1992 and 1995 tournaments were a big success. In 1997 FIFA took over the organization of the tournament, named it the FIFA Confederations Cup, and initially staged the competition every two years then, from 2005 on, every four years. Now the Confederations Cup is held in the year preceding the World Cup, in the host country of the forthcoming World Cup. The Confederations Cup is contested by the incumbent world champion, the host country side (which qualifies automatically), and the winners of each of the six continental championships (Europe, the Americas, Africa, Asia and Oceania). Russia will be hosting the 2017 Confederations Cup next year.  

But let’s get back to our photo. As we have mentioned previously, fan photos are an integral part of football reporting. Indeed, to play a match to empty stalls, without a single spectator, is one of the harshest punishments ever meted out to a misbehaving team. It is the fans’ emphatic presence that creates that special atmosphere which makes a stadium visit worthwhile.  

In the photo we can see some men wearing traditional Middle Eastern clothes. Football has only recently gained popularity in the Middle East, and King Fahd bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia, who reigned from 1982 to 2005, had a lot to do with the rise of football’s popularity in his country. It was during the reign of King Fahd that Saudi Arabia got its own professional football league and began hosting international football matches at a new, state-of-the-art arena named after him. Football has since become an indispensable part of life for Saudi men, making football fans out of them. Like any fans, they make up symbolic monikers for their national squad, like “Falcons,” “Sons of the Desert,” “The Green Ones” (green is a sacred colour for Muslims). One other sobriquet – “Asian Brazilians” – sounds more to the point than others. Saudi Arabia has one of Asia’s strongest football squads, which has won the continental cup competition three times, in 1984, 1988 and 1996.

But whenever football seems to clash with Sharia law, Sharia law prevails. You will not see any women at a football stadium in Saudi Arabia – and there are none in this photo.

The generosity of Saudi football fans is legendary. No wonder: there are crown princes and wealthy Saudi entrepreneurs among them. They literally showered the Saudi squad with gold after it won the group stage at the 1994 FIFA World Cup US. But the squad’s captain, Abdellah, said: "We play not for money and not for fame. Me and my partners are orthodox Muslims. We have only one thought out there on the pitch: to protect the honour of our country and make our people happy. We pray five times a day and we know that Allah is with us.”

Despite the differences in cultures and customs, we can see that the fans on all continents share their love of football and loyalty to their team. They all love it when their team wins, and they have emotions in common, which have nothing to do with the cut of their clothes.