The Saudi Arabian and Palestinian national teams drew 0-0 in their first-ever West Bank game, a 2022 World Cup qualifier, on Tuesday.
The match was held at the Palestinian national stadium in Al-Ram, part of the West Bank close to Jerusalem but cut off from the city by the Israeli security barrier.
Cheered on by a packed and vociferous home stadium, the Palestinian team frustrated their more prestigious guests and came close multiple times, but neither side was ultimately able to make the breakthrough.
With significant excitement over the match, all tickets at the 8,000 stadium were given away free on the day, with thousands waiting in often disorderly lines to get in. Hundreds of others watched from windows or roofs of buildings overlooking the stadium. Israel’s Channel 12 news estimated that 20,000 fans had somehow jammed into the stadium.
Many members of the Palestinian Authority security services stood at the entrances to the stadium and its bleachers, as well as along the main roads in al-Ram. Israel usually only allows the PA to deploy a small number of its forces to the area.
The game marks a change in policy for Saudi Arabia, which has previously played matches against the Palestinian team in third-party countries, in line with a decades-long Arab boycott of Israel.
The 0-0 result means Uzbekistan leads the qualifying group with six points from three games, while Saudi Arabia is second with five points. Palestine and Singapore have four points each.
About 300 journalists registered to cover the match, according to Palestinian officials.
Arab clubs and national teams have historically refused to play in the West Bank as it requires obtaining entry permits from Israel, a country most of them do not recognize.
However, in recent years, common concerns over Iran are widely seen as having brought Gulf powerhouse Saudi Arabia and Israel — both staunch US allies — closer together.
The Palestinian soccer association described the Saudi team’s arrival as a “win-win” situation.
Some of the Saudi delegation visited the Al-Aqsa mosque in the Old City of Jerusalem on Monday.
Lebanon, Syria and even Egypt, which has a peace agreement with Israel, still refuse to play in the Palestinian territories.
But other countries such as Bahrain, Morocco, the United Arab Emirates and Oman have sent their clubs and teams to play in the West Bank.
At the stadium, large Palestinian and Saudi flags had been erected on the building behind it.
“God, Palestine and Jerusalem is Arab,” the fans chanted, with the stadium only a few miles from the holy city.
There were no Saudi fans at the stadium but pictures of Saudi King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman were erected alongside Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and his predecessor Yasser Arafat.
Palestinian public opinion was divided about the game, with some seeing it as a boost for Palestinian soccer while others interpreting it as signs of an unwelcome thaw between Saudi Arabia and Israel.
Wajd Waji, 20, was among a group of four young men wearing Palestinian football shirts. “It will be the first time I have seen a Saudi person in real life,” he told AFP. “We meet them all the time on (online computer game) PubG. They are always rude on PubG so we want to shout at them.”
Only one of the players in the first 11 was from the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, the other part of the Palestinian territories.
The Palestinians had the first real chance, with striker Saleh Chihadeh hitting the keeper in the 10th minute. The Saudis could have scored as well in the first half but Yahya Al-Shehri’s strike was well saved. In a second half short of chances, Palestinian substitute Khaled Salem flicked a shot over the bar in the final minutes.
The Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement said that while the match is not technically a breach, it came “in the context of dangerous official normalization.”
On Sunday, Palestinian Authority President Abbas met with the Saudi team, telling them “We are proud of this visit, and we feel it embodies the historical relationship between Saudi Arabia and Palestine.”
On Monday, members of the Saudi team visited the Temple Mount in Jerusalem and prayed at the mosques there.