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Sportswashing 101: Real Madrid and Barcelona mired in La Liga’s blatant and unashamed support of Saudi regime


The two Spanish giants may protest innocence but they are party to La Liga’s £100m move to play in Saudi Arabia

Friday, 10th January 2020, 6:02 am

Portraits of Saudi Arabia’s rulers are displayed at every opportunity (Photo: Getty)

There’s a golden rule in sports administration: look for the money. The potential introduction of four-day Test matches will be sold as a measure to improve excitement, but only serves to create more space in the cricketing calendar for money-spinning, shorter-form international matches. When Premiership Rugby chief Ian Ritchie proposed scrapping relegation and ring-fencing the league to maintain the quality of the product, it was an attempted money grab by an organisation that had already sold a stake to private equity firm CVC Capital Partners.

And when Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) president Luis Rubiales unveiled grand plans to safeguard Spain’s Super Cup by expanding it and taking it to Saudi Arabia, everyone read between the lines on the balance sheet. For the next three years at least, we have the three natural heartlands of Spanish football: Madrid, Barcelona, Jeddah.

On Wednesday evening, Real Madrid beat Valencia in a Spanish competition watched by a handful of Spanish supporters. The official attendance at King Abdullah Sports City was a touch over 40,000 in a 62,000-capacity stadium. But Spanish newspaper El Mundo calculated that Valencia had sold 27 tickets to its official supporters. Real Madrid have more than 150,000 official members; El Mundo estimated their sale at 300.

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At half-time on Wednesday, a giant banner of the King and Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia were hung from a blimp over the centre of the pitch: all very normal. It was a gratuitous reminder of why we were here. The Institute of International and Strategic Relations’ statement to AFP branded it part of an “offensive policy to host major sporting events” and present a certain image of Saudi Arabia. This is Sportswashing 101.

It’s one thing allowing nation states to buy elite football clubs on an “if you’re rich enough you’re good enough” basis, but another entirely giving them implicit approval by taking your ball into their backyard. Uefa president Aleksander Ceferin had advised that national governing bodies should avoid countries where basic human rights are not respected. When Uefa are the good guys…

But Rubiales had his own take: “In the world there are food, economic, social inequalities. We can avoid it or we can try to contribute to change.” Rubiales referred to the event as the “Supercopa de la igualdad” – Super Cup of equality. He’s just a man, doing his bit to make a better planet. The vast rise in revenue, you must understand, is entirely inconsequential. One recalls that immortal Mrs Merton one-liner to Debbie McGee: “So what first attracted you to the vastly wealthy absolute monarchy state of Saudi Arabia?”.

Real Madrid played their semi-final in front of a half-empty stadium (Photo: Getty)

You can’t help but think that Rubiales has slightly overestimated the influence of a low-key cup competition. Still, our knight in shining armour has ridden into town to change the world while Michael Jackson’s “Heal the World” plays in his headphones, and for that he must be lauded. Presumably the reported €120m given to the RFEF by Saudi Arabia over three years will be handed to those organisations and charities that campaign against human rights violations in the state? Ah, the line has gone dead; we’ve lost him.

Rubiales has an equally impartial confidante in the Saudi ambassador to Spain, Mansour Bin Khalid Al Farhan Al-Saud. “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,” he told Marca.

So it must be a different Saudi Arabia that only enacted laws last year allowing women to obtain passports and travel abroad without permission from a male guardian. Still in place are the laws that mean women must obtain male permission to leave prison, marry or consent for their children to marry. Last November, Saudi Arabia’s state security agency released a statement categorising feminism, homosexuality and atheism as “extremist ideas”. Atheism is punishable by death, while Saudi Arabia’s extensive use of the death penalty and torture of prisoners has been widely condemned.

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If there was a reasonable argument for revitalising the Supercopa, that intention did not naturally lead here. Rubiales claimed that the competition was “doomed to death” and so required change, but the two legs in 2017 (before the 2018 final was played in Morocco) was watched live by 175,000 supporters and millions more on television. Spain’s state broadcaster chose to not even broadcast this year’s edition, while those domestic supporters have been betrayed by the organisation that purports to hold their interests at heart. In dropping the competition into the eye of a sportswashing storm, Rubiales has signed a different death warrant.

But this goes beyond the Supercopa and Rubiales; they are merely the latest examples of sport’s selective ignorance of geopolitics. You can’t purport to be a worthy catalyst for change at the same time as covering your eyes and ears as you prioritise profit and expect to avoid accusations of double standards – but many more will. If this dance with the devil in the desert might seem like a line in the literal sand, someone will be along soon to draw another one. Just so long as the price and prestige is right.

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