Real Madrid, Barcelona and Saudi Arabia sportswashing

The Supercopa de España kicks off this week, with a newly-revamped format that’s sure to boost interest in the competition.

Instead of the traditional one-off tie between the La Liga champions and the Copa del Rey winners, last season’s top three (Barcelona, Atlético Madrid and Real Madrid) will be joined by Copa winners Valencia in a two-round format.

Valencia face Madrid on Wednesday night, with Barcelona v Atlético taking place the following evening. The winners of each tie will meet in Sunday’s final.

It’s an exciting new lay-out that’s bound to breathe life into a tired, dusty old competition. So where is this contest of Spain’s elite being held? Oh of course. Saudi Arabia. That makes sense. I wonder what the motivation could be for hosting it there.

Well if you ask the head of the Spanish FA (RFEF) Luis Rubiales, their intentions are purely altruistic. In response to questions about Saudi Arabia’s highly dubious record on human rights, gender equality and the war in Yemen, Rubiales insisted that Spanish football can be a “tool for social change” in the country by “flooding them with equality”.

Of course. Surely it has nothing to do with an oppressive oil-rich regime’s attempts to project a positive image of themselves through association with western sporting institutions, and absolutely nothing to do with Spanish football’s plans to grow their global brand and plant their flag in wealthy emerging football markets in order to mine a rich seam of pure petrodollars. €180m over six years should do the trick.

If Rubiales is to be believed, presumably we can look forward to Spanish football events taking place in other, less wealthy dictatorships in future. Perhaps holding the Copa del Rey final in Pyongyang could help spark social change in North Korea? Just an idea.

When announcing the new format last year, Rubiales argued that “society is demanding more attractive formats, with more income. We all win from this.”

But who really wins, Luis?

Do the fans in Spain win, when they are denied the chance to see their teams in action without travelling thousands of miles and forking out thousands of euros? Each team was given an allocation of 12,000 tickets for the games, but Real Madrid sold only 700, Barcelona 300, Atlético Madrid 50 and Valencia a whopping 25. This speaks volumes.

Do the clubs win? They will be rewarded financially, but having to travel long distances and play extra games in the middle of the season is sub-optimal at best for clubs that are competing at the top end of La Liga and in European competition.

Do the people of Saudi Arabia win? Some will, in the sense that they get to see some of the world’s best teams and players up close in their own back yard. But it’s only those that can afford tickets that will benefit.

Are Saudi women winning? They are able to attend the matches in the Supercopa as part of their country’s ‘modernisation’ programme, but inequality is still widespread (despite women now being allowed to drive – imagine that!), and it’s surely only being allowed so they can say to the world “look how progressive we are – we’re allowing women to watch the match, and they don’t even have to be segregated or chaperoned!”

In a sport that is clearly obsessed by the almighty dollar, you would almost respect the RFEF more if they just admitted they were doing it for the money.

But with money driving everything in elite level football now, who will take a stand? Only TVE, Spain’s public broadcaster, has taken any sort of stand by declining to televise the game in protest at the decision to hold it in Saudi Arabia. The only rumble of discontent from any of the clubs involved was from Valencia, although their gripe was not the location of the tournament, but the fact that they will receive less television money than Real Madrid and Barcelona.

None of the players or managers involved has said anything about this clear case of sportswashing. It’s likely that they have been told to swerve the issue should it arise, following Jürgen Klopp’s example from Liverpool’s recent trip to Qatar: “Organisers have to think about these things, not the athletes.”

But athletes are perfectly placed to speak out about these things. They don’t have to toe the line, and if any punishment were meted out to them by their employers or the RFEF for speaking out, then widespread public outrage would certainly present the punishers with a PR disaster.

They have the platform, they have the presence and they have the power.

Sadly, as employees of companies with a financial interest, any player with an awareness of the situation and a desire to speak out would most likely by silenced by his club lest it damage the brand, as we have seen recently with Arsenal distancing themselves from Mesut Özil’s comments about human rights violations in China.

The game is becoming more and more beholden to big money, and less and less concerned about where that money comes from. It is no longer about people, but about profit, and it seems that the RFEF have joined the many organisations who are prepared to sacrifice any principles they may have held to get their noses in the trough.

Dan Bridges