Why Spanish football federation’s lucrative revamp of Supercopa is proving more hassle that it’s worth

Luis Rubiales has been hit with another of complaints over plans to take the tournament to Saudi Arabia

Dermot Corrigan
Monday 14 October 2019 12:10
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What had seemed a straightforward idea to move the Supercopa de España overseas for commercial reasons has landed the Spanish football federation [RFEF] in a minefield stretching from womens’s rights to global geopolitics.

Last April it was confirmed that Spanish football’s traditional curtain raiser would be expanded into a ‘final four’ format – with the games also moved from mid-August to early January.

But the venue for the games has still not been confirmed as plans to play in Saudi Arabia have been complicated by issues over women being able to freely attend games in the Gulf kingdom, as well as the ongoing diplomatic crisis with its neighbour Qatar.

Even Amnesty International got involved over the weekend – with the NGO’s Spain director Esteban Beltran writing to RFEF president Luis Rubiales to say that: “Before deciding the venue, the federation should know the details and history of human rights violations in Saudi Arabia, including discrimination against women, freedom of speech restrictions, participation in the war in Yemen, extensive use of the death penalty and torture of prisoners.”

Rubiales was surely not expecting to deal with such issues when his revised Supercopa format initially seemed a rare example of an innovation almost unanimously supported within Spanish football. It helped that by fortune or design Spain’s four biggest clubs are involved this year – Barcelona as last year’s La Liga champions, Valencia as Copa del Rey winners, and Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid as second and third placed Primera Division finishers.

The move to January was also broadly welcomed as it avoids awkward clashes with either Uefa Supercup commitments or clubs’s commercially important pre-season fixtures around the world. So there was no opposition to the semi-finals being played on January 8th and 9th 2020, with the final on the 12th.

The only remaining issue was where to play – which in theory meant finding out who would pay the most money for the privilege. Rubiales’s idea had always been to play the expanded ‘final four’ competition outside Spain – following last season when Barcelona beat Sevilla 2-1 in Tangiers.

Saudi Arabia soon emerged as most likely to host the 2019/20 version – reportedly out-bidding also-interested Qatar by offering €180 million over six years.

“Arabia is a possibility, although it is difficult to reach €30 million [a year],” said Rubiales last April. “Society is asking us for more attractive formats, with more income. We all win from this.”

The new format was officially approved at an RFEF assembly later that month, and La Liga’s fixture list announced in July left space in early January. But there was still no venue confirmation.

It took until recent weeks for the question of whether female supporters could attend a Supercopa hosted in the Middle East to [belatedly] enter the conversation – when a 29-year-old Iranian female fan died after setting fire to herself following her arrest for trying to watch a men’s AFC Champions League match.

An investigation ordered Fifa president Gianni Infantino led directly to the much publicised [partial] permission for women to attend Iran’s 2022 World Cup qualifier against Cambodia last Thursday. The Saudi authorities have since January 2018 also ‘allowed’ women and girls to see games live, however only within an area of the stadium without any men. Given this situation, Uefa president Aleksander Ceferin has directly asked his organisation’s 55 member federations to “ensure their teams do not play in countries where basic rights of women are not respected.”

Pique looked set to be involved in smoothing over tension (Getty)

The Spanish government also entered the debate. Asked in late September what she thought of playing the Supercopa in Saudi Arabia, Spain’s minister for education Isabel Celaa replied that it did not seem appropriate as: “We in Spain defend gender equality.” Those comments were backed by Spain’s secretary of state for sport Maria Jose Rienda. Although it was later clarified that the government would not directly interfere in RFEF matters, with concerns about human rights not having affected the two countries’ close commercial ties in various non sporting areas.

Atletico board spokesperson Clemente Villaverde raised another potential stumbling block when he was asked whether he would have a problem with playing the Supercopa in Saudi Arabia. “We all know the problems there are with Saudi Arabia, above all the issue of piracy, so it does not seem advisable to play there,” Villaverde told Movistar TV during September’s derbi against Real Madrid. “We would prefer to play the Supercopa where all rights are guaranteed, and there are no problematic attitudes or behaviours.”

That was a reference to BeoutQ – a Saudi based channel which simulcasts [without permission] the signal of Beinsports, the Qatari station with rights for many sporting events including LaLiga throughout the Gulf region. The Saudi government has denied any involvement in this apparent piracy, to much anger from its Qatari counterparts, and incredulity from elsewhere.

La Liga president Javier Tebas also brought up this matter when asked about a Saudi-hosted Supercopa. “For me they can play it anywhere,” Tebas said. “But anywhere except Arabia would be best – as there they are pirating the signal of the entire football industry and world sport.”

As the row rumbled on without Rubiales commenting publicly, Barcelona defender Gerard Pique was reportedly prepared to act as a ‘mediator’, using Middle East contacts from his burgeoning off-the-pitch business career. Barca board spokesperson Josep Vives denied this week that Pique would have any role in deciding where the Supercopa would be played, but managed to suggest that holding the games in Saudi Arabia could actually be a positive for womens’s rights in that country.

“Choosing the Supercopa venue is for the RFEF, not the clubs,” Vives said. “But I can tell you that our foundation has been working in Saudi Arabia for some time. We are working to change things so that women can take part in sport there.”

Real Madrid’s club foundation is also active in Saudi Arabia, where 900 boys and girls attend ‘social-sporting’ education organised in collaboration with local organisation Riyadh Schools. Madrid declined to comment on the Supercopa venue before it was decided. However, coincidentally or not, Los Blancos’s travelling club museum visits Riyadh next January.

Luis Rubiales is facing trouble moving the Spanish Supercup to Saudi Arabia

Valencia were the only club to publicly protest the ‘final four in January’ idea when it was first floated. Los Che club officials have more recently been quiet on the idea of Saudi hosting, perhaps distracted by more pressing matters at Mestalla during the opening weeks of the 2019/20 campaign.

Generally though, it seems the biggest concern for Rubiales and other [all male] senior figures involved is not whether women can freely attend the Supercopa games, but how to accept the attractive Saudi offer without offending their Qatari broadcast partners.

RFEF sources told The Independent this week that an internal commission was still evaluating the different options, and that they alone would make the decision. They declined to enter into any debate about the morality of bringing the competition to any country, while maintaining that Rubiales’ idea remained to convert the Spanish Supercopa into the most attractive possible competition within a global football context.

What that means in practice remains to be seen. A useful option at this point could be to bypass the Middle East debate completely, with India and China also having been mooted as possible venues. For the moment though Rubiales’ plan for a lucrative Spanish Supercopa revamp has been more hassle than it will be worth.

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