Female Saudi flag bearers to miss World Cup opener vs. Russia

© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: World Cup - Group A - Russia vs Saudi Arabia© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: World Cup – Group A – Russia vs Saudi Arabia

By Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber and Sarah Dadouch

MOSCOW/RIYADH (Reuters) – Six Saudi female teenagers slated to serve as their country’s flag bearers at the World Cup’s opening match in Moscow on Thursday will be replaced by Russians after their trip was canceled due to “logistical circumstances”, organizers said.

Named flag bearers as part of a program run by Coca-Cola, the girls, aged 13 to 17, were supposed to lead the Saudi national team onto the pitch at Moscow’s Luzhniki stadium ahead of their match against Russia.

But the organizers said they could no longer make it.

“Due to unforeseen logistical circumstances, the Saudi flag bearers’ delegation will unfortunately no longer be able to attend the opening of the 2018 FIFA World Cup,” Coca-Cola said in a statement to Reuters.

Omar Bennis, public affairs director at Coca-Cola Middle East, declined to disclose the nature of the logistical issues.

He said it was not related to their gender.

It is “a mix of everything”, he said, adding that the company was working with Saudi sports authorities to try to have the girls attend the country’s other matches.

“The chances are low, but we’re still pushing,” he said.

The young Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, whose public appearances have dwindled recently, will attend the match.

Women in Saudi Arabia were allowed to attend soccer matches for the first time this year, as the deeply conservative Muslim country takes steps to ease some restrictions on them.

Saudi Arabia recently lifted a ban on women driving, although that has been accompanied by a crackdown on dissent.

One of the girls told Reuters that the delegation would not only be missing the first match but the entire World Cup, where Saudi Arabia is playing in Group A with Russia, Egypt and Uruguay. She did not give the reason for the cancellation, referring questions to Saudi sports authorities and Coca-Cola.

The World Cup has received special attention this year in the kingdom as its team will play for the first time since 2006.

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