Anger at Spanish Super Cup Held a Long Way from Home in Saudi Arabia

Richard FitzpatrickSpecial to Bleacher ReportJanuary 10, 2020

A Barcelona fan holds a banner ahead of the Spanish Super Cup semifinal soccer match between Barcelona and Atletico Madrid at King Abdullah stadium in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, Thursday, Jan. 9, 2020. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)
Amr Nabil/Associated Press

During the week, the Barcelona-based sports newspaper Mundo Deportivo published a cartoon of Barca's coach Ernesto Valverde hanging under a giant cow's udder, which has the word "Supercopa" scrawled across it.

Valverde is desperately holding onto one of the cow's teats, which are leaking €500 notes. There's no mistaking the message: The re-invention of the Spanish Super Cup—which is being held this week in Saudi Arabia in a new "final four" format—is all about milking the tournament for money.

There are three fundamental changes to the old, traditional format: It is no longer a two-legged playoff between the previous season's league and cup winners; instead those two clubs are joined by the second-placed teams from both competitions (or the next-highest-ranking league finisher in the event one club fulfils more than one qualification method, as Barcelona did this season) to make up semi-final pairings.

The competition has been moved from its pre-season slot in August to mid-season in January, and, most contentiously, it is being staged 6,000 kilometres from Spain in a country that has been heavily criticised for its human rights record. (The previous season's edition was tinkered with, too, by staging a one-off match in August 2018, with Barcelona beating Sevilla 2-1 in Tangier, Morocco.)

When asked about the restructured competition in a press conference before Barcelona played Atletico Madrid in the second of the tournament's semi-finals, Valverde said he preferred the old format, which didn't have two "invited" teams in it. He has no illusions that the new structure is a money grab: "Now football is an industry that is always looking for new ways to generate income, and for this reason we're here."

Real Madrid's player Dani Carvajal responded acidly to Valverde's comments by suggesting the Barcelona coach should make a "formal complaint" if he's not happy with the tournament's structure, while the Royal Spanish Football Federation's (RFEF) president Luis Rubiales also dismissed Valverde's criticisms, pointing out that his club were in agreement with the new format.

"The Royal Spanish Football Federation has changed the essence of the competition," says Joan Poqui, a journalist with Mundo Deportivo. "By changing its natural format and location, it's no longer a Super Cup of Spain. It's a serious injustice to both sets of fans because—in the case of Barcelona and Valencia who were winners of the league and cup, respectively—they've lost the chance to watch a game in their own stadiums, which would have been full.

"For the fans of Real Madrid and Atletico, it's [immaterial] because they didn't win anything last season. They didn't qualify. They were invited. It's the same for them whether it's in Saudi Arabia or Australia or Mongolia. 

"Above all, the fans are hurt and angry with the Royal Spanish Football Federation, which has made this arrangement solely for money. It looks very bad to go to a country like Saudi Arabia—where democracy doesn't exist; where women are systematically neglected and maltreated—solely for money."

JEDDAH, SAUDI ARABIA - JANUARY 09:  Lionel Messi of Barcelona avoids Angel Correa of Athletico Madrid during the Supercopa de Espana Semi-Final match between FC Barcelona and Club Atletico de Madrid at King Abdullah Sports City on January 09, 2020 in Jedd
Francois Nel/Getty Images

The RFEF's deal Saudi Arabia was announced in November and is reportedly worth €120 million over three years, with approximately half going to the participating clubs and the other half to the federation.

This year, for example, Valencia—who got knocked out 3-1 by Real Madrid on Wednesday—received a reported €2 million; Atletico €3 million; and Barcelona and Real Madrid €6 million each, excluding bonus payments for the two finalists. Valencia threatened legal action over their cut of the pie, which is based on brand value. 

Rubiales, the federation's chief, maintained the old competition's format was "unfeasible"—that it was unattractive for fans unless it was a Barca vs. Real Madrid pairing, and was at the risk of disappearing.

"Until now it has been a competition which has been staged in the summer in Spain without interest from the media or from the public. It was unnoticeable for almost everyone," says a spokesperson for the RFEF.

Poqui disagrees with the federation's argument that the old structure for the Spanish Super Cup was losing interest: "The only motivation to change the format is to earn money for the federation. It's a lie to say that the Super Cup in August doesn't interest anyone.

"If you ask, say, Sevilla if they would get a good attendance for a match against Barcelona in the Super Cup, the answer would be 'Yes'. The Super Cup in August in Barcelona has always been a very worthwhile, profitable competition."

There is evidence to support Poqui's case. In August 2015, for example, when Athletic Bilbao had already effectively killed the tie by winning the first leg 4-0, almost 89,000 fans still trooped along to Barcelona's Camp Nou stadium to watch the second leg.  

The Supercopa trophy
The Supercopa trophyPower Sport Images/Getty Images

Before the draw was made for the revamped tournament, Rubiales said he consulted with captains from the four participating clubs. He assured them that they would be able to spend Dia de los Reyes (January 6, the day in Spain children traditionally receive their Christmas presents) at home with their families.

Rubiales also promised them they wouldn't have to travel too far for the tournament. It's a six-hour flight between Spain and Saudi Arabia, which Rubiales said is preferable to some of the other destinations on the negotiating table, which were "12 to 14 hours" from Spain.

Football fans in Spain have voted with their feet, however. Some 12,000 tickets were distributed between the four clubs, yet only 26 tickets, for example, were taken up by Valencia. Of the 300 tickets optioned by Barcelona, only 35 fans travelled from Catalonia, with the rest of the tickets distributed among fans who travelled to Saudi Arabia from other parts of the world.

The choice of Saudi Arabia as host also turned off some TV rights bidders. RTVE, Spain's state broadcaster, declined to bid, with Movistar eventually securing the contract.  

"When a big sporting event like the Spanish Super Cup is staged in a country with a track record of serious human rights abuses like Saudi Arabia, it's used as a smoke screen to hide the reality that exists outside the stadium. It's used to try and improve the image of the host country," says Amnesty International director Eva Suarez-Llanos.

"When the Royal Spanish Football Federation talks about the 'Super Cup of Equality,' it's a bit of an exaggeration. The reality for everyday women in Saudi Arabia is that there has been some limited advances in recent times, but there are many women who are in prison at the moment for defending their human rights."

Suarez-Llanos cites the case of 30-year-old Loujain al-Hathloul, who was a lead campaigner in getting the ban lifted on female drivers in Saudi Arabia in 2018. She was arrested in May of that year for her campaign to end the country's male guardianship system (which, for example, dictates that women still need permission to marry and must be segregated in public places).

Al-Hathloul's family are worried that she is being tortured in prison. Her brother told The Independent  in February that he had seen burns and bruises on her legs when he visited her.

"The situation for women in Saudi Arabia is worrying, but unfortunately it's not the only problem of human rights abuses in the country," says Suarez-Llanos. "Others are in prison for campaigning for freedom of expression. This week marked the fifth anniversary of Raif Badawi's incarceration, essentially for writing a blog. He has been flogged in prison.

"The same day in November it was confirmed this Spanish Super Cup would be hosted in Jeddah, authorities in Saudi Arabia listed feminism, homosexuality and atheism as dangerous, extremist ideas. During these days of the tournament, if a player from one of the Spanish league teams declared he was a homosexual, he could get a prison sentence as homosexuality is a crime in the country."

At Wednesday's first semi-final clash, it was the first time in history that women could watch a live football match without having to stay in a segregated part of the stadium. It has been celebrated by the RFEF as a step in the right direction.  

A Real Madrid supporter cheers ahead of the Spanish Super Cup semi final between Valencia and Real Madrid on January 8, 2020, at the King Abdullah Sport City in the Saudi Arabian port city of Jeddah. (Photo by GIUSEPPE CACACE / AFP) (Photo by GIUSEPPE CAC

"I'm a woman," says a spokesperson for the federation. "I'm an activist. I understand that things have to change in Saudi Arabia. The only way a country like it can open up is to bring in changes bit by bit. The same thing happened in Spain when General Franco's government was a dictatorship. The Beatles arrived in Spain for a concert in 1965. People came to the concert and got to see a different world that was in Spain at that time. It helped to usher in social change in Spain.

"We can't say, 'We must never visit this place Saudi Arabia because there's no equality or not hold a competition of great interest to the sporting world here.' What happened on Wednesday was something very important. We saw something nobody thought would happen in this country, which will help towards bringing about equality. If you do nothing, advances will never come. To change things, you have to take chances."

Suarez-Llanos is sceptical: "The biggest disadvantage of staging this Spanish Super Cup is it's propaganda value for the Saudi regime. It's being used as a tool to improve the image globally of the Saudi regime without producing real improvements of the situation for the everyday life of its citizens. Or let's see. Hopefully staging the event in Saudi Arabia will help generate pressure to bring meaningful changes.  

"It would be helpful if the competition's principal actors—the players and federation—made public, for example, their support for the campaign to release Loujain and other female activists imprisoned in Saudi Arabia."

In the meantime, some football is being played, including a 3-2 thriller on Thursday night, when Atletico Madrid dumped Lionel Messi's Barcelona out of the tournament. It means that Sunday's clash will be a Madrid derby—with Zinedine Zidane looking to win his ninth final (out of nine) as Real Madrid's head coach—a long way from the Spanish capital. 


Follow Richard on Twitter: @Richard_Fitz


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