Madrid - Real Madrid and Barcelona will be among those tussling for the
Spanish Super Cup in Saudi Arabia this week, amid controversy over a
tournament held faraway from home in a country long-condemned for its
record on human rights.
Spain's two most decorated clubs could face off in a Clasico final in
Jeddah on Sunday if Real Madrid beat in-form Valencia and Barca can
overcome Atletico Madrid in the semis.
Yet the prospect of another showdown between La Liga's leading pair
has been overshadowed by criticism, with lingering concerns about a
Spanish competition being played on a different continent, more than 6 400 km away.
The financial incentives on offer, both to the Spanish Football
Federation (RFEF), who run the competition, and the four clubs taking
part are bound to have been persuasive.
For agreeing to participate alone, Barcelona and Real Madrid will
receive €6 million while Atletico and Valencia
will pocket around three million euros each. If Barca and Real Madrid
reach the final, it is expected they will earn around €10 million
for the week.
The RFEF, meanwhile, has an agreement for the tournament to be held
in Saudi Arabia for three years, for which it will earn a total of €120
million, an amount it claims will be put back into the women's
game and lower leagues.
President Luis Rubiales has also said the old format, involving a
final in August between the league champions and cup winners, was no
longer capturing the imagination of fans.
"The Super Cup was doomed to death," said Rubiales in November.
"The money we will get is not for building a villa. It will go to
women's football and the clubs in Segunda B and Tercera. Of course money
is important, who can deny that? Money is very important but the money
will go where it is needed."
'Heinous human rights record'
But in exchange for
bigger cheques, the RFEF is facing accusations of betraying Spanish
supporters and turning a blind eye to Saudi Arabia's "heinous human
rights record", as it was described by Amnesty International in
Saudi Arabia has followed the lead of Qatar and the United Arab
Emirates by accelerating its investment in sports events to exert soft
power and cast a more positive image of the country across the world.
"There is a very offensive policy to host major sporting events... to
spread a different image of Saudi Arabia," Carole Gomez, a researcher
at the Institute of International and Strategic Relations, told AFP.
But Rubiales believes the Spanish Super Cup can be used as a force for good.
"In the world there are food, economic, social inequalities," he said. "We can avoid it or we can try to contribute to change."
Amid criticism of Saudi Arabia's treatment of women, agreements have
been reached between the RFEF and the Spanish authorities to ensure
women will have free access to the King Abdullah Stadium, where all
three fixtures will be played.
In January 2018, women were allowed to enter a stadium to watch football in Saudi Arabia for the first time.
"Women can enter all these events," the Saudi ambassador to Spain,
Mansour Bin Khalid Al Farhan Al-Saud, told Marca last month. "That is
what I mean when I say there is ignorance. You have false ideas about
our country. There is no limitation for women in our country."
Fans from Spain appear unlikely to make the 10-hour trip to Jeddah,
which would cost them close to €1 000 in flights and accommodation
According to Spanish newspaper El Mundo on Monday, only 1 076 of
12 000 tickets had been sold, with Valencia selling just 26. "Nobody
wants to go to the Spanish Super Cup", read El Mundo's headline.
Supporters might also have weighed up the importance of the
tournament, which is considered far less prestigious even than the Copa
del Rey, Spain's domestic cup competition, and pales into insignificance
alongside La Liga and the Champions League.
Real Madrid and Barcelona sit level on points at the top of La Liga
and all four clubs will be eager to avoid injuries, with each of them
involved in the Champions League knock-out stage, which begins next
Madrid announced on Monday that neither Karim Benzema, their top
scorer, nor Gareth Bale would be travelling due to fitness problems and
Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde will be wary of over-exerting Lionel
The desire to clinch a trophy will be checked by a need to prioritise
and any celebrations may not be fully shared by those watching at home.