(Reuters) - Spanish football crosses new horizons when its re-booted Super Cup competition begins on Wednesday in Saudi Arabia, a move that will significantly boost the national federation’s coffers but has angered human rights groups and local supporters.
Real Madrid and Valencia meet in the first semi-final in Jeddah on Wednesday before Barcelona take on Atletico Madrid 24 hours later for a place in Sunday’s final.
The Super Cup was a two-legged tie between the league champions and Copa del Rey holders but federation chief Luis Rubiales oversaw a dramatic shake-up last November, striking a three-year deal to play the tournament in Saudi Arabia.
The federation has not confirmed financial details but Spanish media reports say the deal is worth around 40 million euros annually.
The Spanish Super Cup is the latest high-profile sporting event to be held in Saudi Arabia, which recently hosted the Anthony Joshua-Andy Ruiz Jr heavyweight boxing bout as well as the Italian Super Cup and a Brazil-Argentina friendly.
But the choice of the conservative Muslim kingdom — where women’s rights and human rights remain an issue — was condemned by high profile figures in Spanish women’s football and Amnesty International.
The event was also shunned by state network RTVE on human rights grounds and other prominent networks before Movistar bought the broadcasting rights.
A ban on women attending matches in Saudi Arabia was lifted in 2018 although some restrictions still apply, but Rubiales has said they will be able to attend the Super Cup freely.
Saudi sports minister Abdulaziz Bin Turki added: “My country is not like 10 years ago, we’ve changed many things. We have preserved our private culture but want to advance towards being a more modern country.”
Transplanting the tournament to Saudi Arabia has also been met with a backlash from Spanish fans.
“A festival of football where the four best teams compete should not exclude their supporters,” said umbrella fan group Aficiones Unidas (Supporters United).
Newspaper El Mundo reported that 9% of 12,000 tickets available to Spanish fans have been distributed, with Valencia fans taking up only 26 tickets and Atletico picking up 50.
Organisers Sela Sports, however, say the majority of tickets have been snapped up by Saudi nationals and predict all three matches at the 62,000-capacity King Abdullah Sport City Stadium will be well attended.
Valencia is the only team to criticise the changes, airing their disapproval at earning two million euros from the competition compared to the six million euros Barca and Real will receive and the three million euros Atletico will pocket.
Reporting by Richard Martin, editing by Pritha Sarkar