Spanish football has come under sharp criticism over its decision to hold the Super Cup tournament in Saudi Arabia, which kicked off yesterday with a match between bitter rivals, FC Barcelona and Real Madrid, in Riyadh's King Fahd International Stadium. Atletic Bilbao and Atletico Madrid will play the second semi-final under the current format of the mid-season tournament, held for a second year in Saudi Arabia.
"It makes no sense to play a game there (in Saudi Arabia) that could be played here," said former Spain international and Bilbao midfielder, Raul Garcia. "It's very simple: we are playing a tournament that is (normally) played in our own country and it doesn't make sense to play it anywhere else".
Garcia sees the decision to play in Saudi Arabia as part of a worrying trend he claims is ruining the beautiful game. "Football has changed in the sense that no one thinks about the fans. What matters is generating (money) getting sponsors, and we are forgetting the basics regarding what football is. The atmosphere, families enjoying games together, kick-off times that suit spectators. It's changed a lot since I started playing," the 35-year-old complained.
For 40 years, the Spanish Super Cup was played as a curtain raiser to the new season between the previous campaign's cup winners and the league champions. But, in 2019, the format was changed to four teams, including cup and league runners up, and the tournament was exported to Saudi Arabia.
The Spanish authorities justified the decision, arguing that allowing the Saudis to host the tournament could help change the culture of the Kingdom. Critics, however, say that this is all about money, pointing to the tournament's principal sponsors, NEOM, which is wholly owned by the Public Investment Fund, Saudi Arabia's sovereign wealth fund. Crown Prince, Mohamed Bin Salman, is the spearhead of what he calls the Kingdom's renewal and modernisation through NEOM projects.
The Royal Spanish Football Federation is expected to generate some $34 million dollars from the deal with the Saudis. But with the cost of flight being beyond the reach of average fans, the deal has left a bitter taste amongst millions of supporters who will no longer be able to share what has been a traditional fixture in the Spanish football calendar.
It is no secret that Saudi Arabia has been seeking to use its deep-pockets to become a major player in the sporting world. Critics say it is Riyadh's way of sportwashing the Kingdom's human rights abuses. Following its purchase of Newcastle United, Riyadh is on the verge of completing a billion-dollar takeover of Italian giant, Inter Milan.