Real Madrid and Barcelona are facing a huge backlash over their £102million jaunt to Saudi Arabia as they ignore criticism over taking money from a nation long-condemned for its appalling human rights record.
The two clubs – perhaps the biggest in world football – are in the Middle East this week to take part in a revamped Spanish Super Cup, alongside both Valencia and Atletico Madrid.
But the country’s foray to Saudi Arabia has raised more than a few eyebrows, with Amnesty International claiming the clubs and Spanish FA are turned a blind eye to the ‘heinous human rights record’ in the country.
Lionel Messi walks through the airport after Barcelona touched down in Saudi Arabia
Barcelona and Real Madrid are staying silent in the face of a huge backlash over the Super Cup
Of course, money talks in football, and Saudi Arabia are paying £102m for the privilege of hosting the tournament in Jeddah over the coming days.
That works out at £34m a year on a three-year deal, with Barcelona and Real Madrid expected to receive £8.5m each for a week’s work if they reach the final on Sunday.
It is not just high-profile charities who have condemned the decision, with tickets having sold at a disastrously slow rate too; less than nine per cent of the club’s fans have bought tickets to travel to the matches.
Spanish papers have also hit hard with their criticism, claiming that ‘nobody wants to go’… and the fact that just 1,075 tickets have been sold – mainly to Middle East-based fans – is testament to that.
The clubs have already arrived in Saudi Arabia, more than 4,000 miles from home, but fewer television cameras will also be on them when they take to the field, with the first match between Valencia and Real Madrid being played tonight.
Spain’s public broadcaster TVE have taken a stand by declining to televise the games, in protest to the tournament being held in Saudi Arabia.
Zinedine Zidane’s Real Madrid are taking part but not many of their fans have made the trip
Both Real and Barca have stayed quiet on questions over their participation in the tournament. The only real gripe raised has been Valencia – although they took issue with the amount of television money they were receiving compared to the big two, rather than the Super Cup’s new location.
La Liga president Javier Tebas has also been forthright in his criticism, warning that the country have been ‘pirating’ Spanish football for a long time.
He argues that Saudi pirate television operation beoutQ has been systematically stealing European football matches for more than two years, retransmitting beIN SPORTS coverage to millions of viewers across the country.
Tebas has condemned the decision to move the Super Cup to the Middle East and said it undermines La Liga’s rights deal with beIN SPORTS.
‘I don’t think it’s the best moment to play in Saudi Arabia,’ he said. ‘It’s a country that has been pirating us, pirating European soccer.
‘It was the better offer [for the Super Cup] because it will be paid with money taken from European soccer.’
MAJOR SPORTS EVENTS SHIPPED TO SAUDI
The Spanish Super Cup is just the latest in a string of major sporting events that Saudi Arabia has snapped up in recent years:
Joshua v Ruiz II – Anthony Joshua reclaimed his IBF, WBA and WBO world heavyweight titles in the ‘Clash on the Dunes’ last month.
Anthony Joshua reclaimed his world titles in the ‘Clash of the Dunes’ with Andy Ruiz
Saudi International – European Tour -Rory McIlroy has ruled out competing in golf’s visit to Saudi this year, confirming there was a ‘morality’ behind his decision as he turned down a £1.9m appearance fee.
Khan v Dib – Before the ‘Clash on the Dunes’, Saudi Arabia had fronted Amir Khan’s WBC international welterweight title fight against Billy Dib during July 2019. Khan side-stepped Amnesty International’s criticism of the fight and claimed Saudi was undergoing social change. He took home a £7m purse.
WWE’s ‘Crown Jewel’ – Tyson Fury made his WWE debut in Saudi Arabia last year, flooring Braun Strowman to ‘win’ by count-out at the King Saud University Stadium. Amnesty were again critical of the hosts’ ‘abysmal human rights record’.
Supercoppa Italiana – The Spanish FA are not the first to take their equivalent of the Community Shield to Saudi. Italy have hosted their version there for the last two seasons. Cristiano Ronaldo scored the winner for Juventus this time last year.
Cristiano Ronaldo holds the Italian Super Cup after Juventus’ win in January last year
Saudi Cup – The world’s richest horse race will be held in Saudi Arabia during February 2020. The £15.2m Saudi Cup will be run over nine furlongs on dirt at Riyadh’s King Abdulaziz Racetrack.
Saudi Arabia Snooker Masters – Even snooker is getting in on the act now. October will see the first edition of a 10-year partnership of tournaments with a top prize of £500,000 matching that of the World Championship.
Luis Rubiales, meanwhile, is of a different opinion. President of the Spanish FA, it was his decision to up sticks to the Middle East and he argues that the money earned will be put into the women’s game and Spain’s lower leagues.
‘The Super Cup was doomed to death,’ he said in November.
‘The money we will get is not for building a villa. It will go to women’s football and the clubs in Segunda B and Tercera. Of course money is important, who can deny that? Money is very important but the money will go where it is needed.’
But is the money enough to turn a blind eye to the ‘sportswashing’ accused of Saudi Arabia?
Spanish football is not the first organisation, nor will it be the last, to head to where the money is at its most free-flowing.
Real Madrid’s players train at King Abdullah Sports City, where the games will be played
A number of Real Madrid players have been left at home, through a mixture of illness and injury
Anthony Joshua’s high-profile rematch with Andy Ruiz Jr was held in the country, and Cristiano Ronaldo lifted his first trophy with Juventus in the 2018 Italian Super Cup – in the very same stadium that the likes of Lionel Messi will play in this week.
‘With the Saudi Arabian authorities apparently stepping up efforts to “sportswash” the country’s heavily-tarnished image, it’s no real surprise that the Spanish Super Cup is being hosted in Jeddah,’ Felix Jakens, Amnesty International UK’s Head of Campaigns, said.
‘Under Mohammed bin Salman, new high-profile Saudi sporting events have come thick and fast, even as the Crown Prince has presided over a sweeping human rights crackdown on women’s rights activists, lawyers and the country’s Shia minority.
‘There’s been no justice over the gruesome murder of Jamal Khashoggi, and the Saudi-led military coalition in Yemen is still carrying out indiscriminate attacks on homes, hospitals and market-places.
Barcelona will receive £8.5million for a week’s work if they get to the final of the tournament
Valencia coach Albert Celades attends a press conference ahead of the tie against Real Madrid
‘Though the Saudi authorities would prefer the world to focus on the glitz and glamour of prestige events like Barca taking on Atletico, the sportswash effect can be countered if influential figures are prepared to address the human rights situation.
‘If a player like Lionel Messi were to say something about the outrageous jailing of the Saudi women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul, for example, this would be an important reminder to the Saudi authorities that their appalling crackdown isn’t going unnoticed.’
There have been positive actions in a bid to outweigh the bad, of course. An agreement has been made between the RFEF and the Spanish authorities to ensure that women will have free access to the stadium for all three matches.
‘Women can enter all these events,’ the Saudi ambassador to Spain, Mansour Bin Khalid Al Farhan Al-Saud, told Marca last month. ‘That is what I mean when I say there is ignorance. You have false ideas about our country. There is no limitation for women in our country.’
Joshua’s money-spinning rematch against Andy Ruiz Jr was held in Saudi Arabia in December
Luis Rubiales insists that the money will be dished out into lower leagues and women’s game
Fans from Spain, though, don’t appear to be making the trip. With flights, accommodation and spending money, it is looking like a near-£1000 spend to go and see their team in action.
According to Spanish newspaper El Mundo on Monday, only 1,076 of 12,000 tickets had been sold, with Valencia selling just 26. ‘Nobody wants to go to the Spanish Super Cup’, read the paper’s front-page headline.
Their columnist Joan Poqui also wrote: ‘This is a tournament that should be contested by Barcelona and Valencia as winners of the league and the cup last season.
‘The [Spanish Football] Federation have de-naturalized it. In a sporting sense it’s a mutant. It’s not the Super Copa and it’s not in Spain. It’s a trophy that has been prostituted for money.’
Supporters might also have weighed up the importance of the tournament, which is considered far less prestigious even than the Copa del Rey, Spain’s domestic cup competition, and pales into insignificance alongside La Liga and the Champions League.
Both Gareth Bale (left) and Karim Benzema have not made the long trip to the Middle East
Real Madrid’s players pose after touching down in Saudi Arabia for the four-team tournament
Barcelona and Real Madrid’s precarious league position – they are level on points at the top – means they are desperate to avoid injuries in their Middle Eastern jaunt.
Real have left Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema at home through a combination of injury and illness, and Barcelona boss Ernesto Valverde will be worried about over-exerting Messi, too.
All in all, Spanish supporters feel betrayed by the move – and the ignorance of the Spanish FA in the face of the current backlash leaves a bad taste in the mouth.
For Real Madrid and Barcelona, the desire to clinch a trophy will be counteracted by a need to prioritise other competitions, and any celebrations come Sunday evening will not be fully shared by fans watching – or not watching, as the case may be.
Sure, money talks, but whether it is worth turning a blind eye to Saudi Arabia’s appalling human rights record, and alienating an entire fanbase for the sake of a few million euros, is another question entirely.
AND IT’S NOT JUST SPORTS STARS FACING A BACKLASH OVER TRIPS TO SAUDI….
American actor Ryan Phillippe last month aggressively defended Saudi Arabia as he and other celebrities faced a fierce backlash for attending a music festival in the country – as some accused them of being ‘shameless’ and accepting six-figure sums to help rehabilitate the country’s image.
A bevy of stars were slammed after they started inundating social media with photos of themselves attending the MDL Beast music festival in Riyadh without mentioning the country’s controversial human rights record.
While the majority did not respond to the backlash, Phillippe lashed out at people commenting on his Instagram posts.
Ryan Phillippe aggressively defended Saudi Arabia as he and other celebrities faced a fierce backlash for attending a music festival in the country
‘Things are changing, hopefully you do too sh*thead,’ he wrote to one person.
He said to another: ‘It’s changing moron. Have you been? I’d love to take any woman important to me. F**k off.
‘1st of all I’m traveling many places in the mid east. 2nd, find me a country without issues, i’ll wait. 3rd things are changing and progressing rapidly in KSA and the people are lovely. pay better attention and quit virtue signalling princess.’
Critics called out the tone-deaf nature of such an event in Saudi Arabia and cited last year’s slaying of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the arrest of women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul and the treatment of LGBT residents.
Phillippe is among the bevy of stars who had been slammed since they started inundating social media with photos of themselves attending the MDL Beast music festival in Riyadh