Once upon a time the Spanish Super Cup was a simple competition played between the winners of the Spanish league and the Copa del Rey in Spain in August. It may essentially have been a glorified friendly but everybody knew what it was and it served some kind of purpose as a showpiece for the best of the Spanish game.
This year, though, it feels almost as though it had been designed to highlight the worst facets of modern football. Needless gigantism? Check. Held with no consideration for fans? Check. Hosted by a state with a highly questionable human rights record? Check.
There weren’t just two teams, involved but four – because how else could you ensure that both Barcelona and Real Madrid will be there, ideally to meet in a showpiece final? Not that they will, after Atletico’s late comeback against Barça in Thursday’s semi-final. The organizers, though, will reflect that a Madrid derby is probably still of greater global appeal than Barcelona v Valencia, which is what the Super Cup would have been in every previous year.
Understandably, Valencia, as Cup winners, were outraged, all the more so when it became apparent they would receive only €2m as an appearance fee, as opposed to the €6m given to Real Madrid and Barcelona. "The bottom line is football has become a business and as a business it looks for income," said the Barcelona manager Ernesto Valverde. "That's the reason we are all here.” Which is admirably honest, but also ignores the fact that it’s taken for granted that the super clubs should be paid more, a microcosm of the rigged system that ensures they continue to grow more and more powerful while the rest are left to gather crumbs at their table.
And then there’s the venue. It’s not hard to understand why the Spanish federation (RFEF) were drawn to Saudi Arabia, which signed a three-year deal to host the competition worth €40m a year, half of which goes to the federation. After all, who cares where the money comes from so long as it’s money? Who cares if the payment is to stage a tournament in a country that still practices corporal punishment, that has been repeatedly accused by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch of deploying torture, where women are systematically subjugated, where anti-semitism and persecution of Muslim minorities is rife, where freedom of speech and expression is severely limited and where the Kafala employment system is still practiced.
Consequently, the Spanish state TV channel decided not to broadcast the competition saying it had no desire to help with sports washing the Saudi regime.
This, of course, is part of a wider discussion in football’s increasing fascination with Middle-Eastern cash, the centerpiece of which is Qatar’s hosting of the World Cup in 2022. Deciding what is and what is not acceptable from a host of a major tournament is not easy. To begin with, who gets to decide? Whose value system should such things be judged by? Do we write off the UK because of the shameful “hostile environment” for immigrants imposed by the former prime minister Theresa May when she was home secretary? Do we write off the US because it persists with capital punishment? Or for the assassination of Qassem Soleimani? But on the other hand, the working conditions endured by those building the stadiums for the World Cup in Qatar are by any humane standard appalling.
The Spanish education minister and various women’s groups have condemned the move to Jeddah, although the games will at least be theoretically open to all with no areas segregated by sex as was the case when the Italian Super Cup was played in Saudi Arabia in both 2018 and 2019.
On a more practical level, there is the question of who football is for. Spanish football is desperate to expand, to attract the sort of global audience enjoyed by the Premier League. Spreading the game, giving fans in Jeddah the opportunity to watch the best in the world sounds laudable. But then don’t fans of the clubs concerned have some sort of ownership as well? Barely anybody seems to be traveling: Valencia reportedly sold 27 tickets. It’s believed that in total fewer than 200 will travel from Spain to Saudi Arabia.
Football at its highest level feels increasingly as though it is moving to a quasi-franchise model, with the super clubs less and less connected to a fanbase in their own city. That’s why, of course, there have been three separate attempts to play La Liga games in the US, all thwarted by the RFEF president Luis Rubiales. He talks of the integrity of the competition and insists the Super Cup, which he has previously taken to Morocco, is different from the league in being a self-contained competition. But it’s hard not to wonder whether this for Rubiales is less a matter of principle than of control. The league, for their part, have condemned the move, less on the grounds of human rights than that Saudi Arabia is widely suspected – although it denies it – of being behind the mass pirating of the Qatari-run channel that broadcasts La Liga games.
Still, there’ll be a Clasico in the final and that, for many, will cover over what a sordid business this is. Torture, execution, the denial of free speech, misogyny, homophobia, the disenfranchisement of fans, basic greed, but... never mind, there’s Lionel Messi running at Sergio Ramos.