By: Lucas Delgado
January 30, 2024
Photo Credit: Juan Medina/Reuters
On Jan. 14th, Spanish soccer giant Real Madrid CF kicked off the new year by adding another piece of silverware to their already expansive trophy cabinet. The club won their 13th Supercopa de España, defeating cross-town club Atlético de Madrid by a score of 5-3 in a thrilling semifinal matchup before dominating historic rivals FC Barcelona 4-1 in the final. Upon first glance, the sequence of events present in this year’s Spanish Super Cup seem to be relatively ordinary. However, in the 2019-2020 season, an interesting alteration was made to the competition that has been met with equal parts intrigue and skepticism: the location. The competition pitting the past season’s most successful Spanish clubs has found a new home… in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
The history of the Spanish Super Cup is complex. After several short-lived attempts to start a competition similar to the FA Community Shield in England throughout the mid-1900s, the Royal Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) settled on a new format in 1982 that would stand for over three decades. This version of the competition would see the winners of La Liga - the top domestic league competition - and the winners of the Copa Del Rey - the top domestic cup competition - compete in a two game series, with the team that scores the most goals across both games being crowned the winner. However, in the 2018 season, the competition began to take a different form. Due to scheduling conflicts brought on by finalists Sevilla, who were set to play in UEFA Europa League qualifying matches during the same week as the Spanish Super Cup, their final matchup against Barcelona was changed to a single-game format played in Morocco. Then, in an effort to overhaul the competition to increase its international visibility, the RFEF decided to make even greater changes to the competition for the following season. The competition expanded from two teams to four, accommodated by the implementation of two single-game semifinals and a single-game final, all taking place in Saudi Arabia. The relocation to the Middle East was confirmed with a $146 million deal between the oil-rich nation and the RFEF in 2019, meaning that Saudi Arabia will pay a $36.5 million annual hosting rights fee through 2029.
For the Saudi Arabian government, this agreement is just one piece of the larger publicity puzzle that they’ve sought to solve over the past decade. In 2016, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman outlined “Vision 2030”, a plan to diversify the country’s national economy and increase their strategic positioning to maximize positive publicity on a global stage. A significant hallmark of this plan has been a keen interest in the sports industry, with other notable state-backed investments including the funding of the LIV Golf Tour and the deal to bring two WWE Premium Live Events to the nation each year. Furthermore, within the sphere of professional soccer, the Saudi Pro League has seen massive development in the past year, with big names such as Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar Jr., Karim Benzema, N’Golo Kanté and more being lured by massive salaries to join clubs in the kingdom.
However, many critics have labeled the Vision 2030 plan as a marquee example of sports-washing (the use of sport to mask a nation’s negatives and improve its reputation on the national stage). In particular, the criticism is in regard to Saudi Arabia’s questionable human rights record. The backlash has been a hot topic of conversation surrounding the Spanish Super Cup. Before their semifinal matchup, Barcelona issued warnings to their fans asking them to “respect the local customs'', noting that “indecent actions” and “same-sex relations” could be subject to extreme punishment from the local authorities. Minky Worden, Human Rights Watch Director of Global Initiatives, expressed her concerns with a statement made via The Guardian, claiming that “[Barcelona’s] briefing serves as a reminder that there is currently no human rights framework for fans, players, journalists or anyone else traveling to Saudi Arabia for a sporting event.” Similar concerns were also expressed by Real Madrid midfielder Toni Kroos, who was heckled by Saudi Arabian attendees at both games for commenting that, “[Saudi’s human rights record is] the one thing that would stop me from [playing in the Saudi Pro League]”. He also argued that any player choosing to join the Saudi Pro League is making “a decision for money and against [soccer].”
The Spanish Super Cup has come to represent an increasingly relevant question for fans, the media, and players alike in regard to the expanding influence of Saudi Arabia in the industry of professional sports. As such, the RFEF is in the precarious position of handling the responsibility to both honor the historical relevance of the competition while also maximizing the revenue it generates. So far, their solution - allowing Saudi Arabia to purchase the hosting rights for the Spanish Super Cup - has seen mixed results.