Spanish FA draws criticism for Super Cup in Saudi Arabia

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Facing criticism from human rights groups, the president of Spain’s soccer federation defended the return of the Spanish Super Cup to Saudi Arabia as Real Madrid prepared to play Athletic Bilbao in Sunday’s final.

Amnesty International had asked the four teams that traveled to the mini-tournament to wear armbands to protest the suppression of women’s rights and attacks on the LGBTQ community in the country. No team did so in this week’s semifinals, when Madrid beat Barcelona 3-2 in extra time and Bilbao rallied past Atlético Madrid 2-1.

Federation president Luis Rubiales insisted that the decision to take the new-look version of the Super Cup to the kingdom was both good for the money it brought to Spanish soccer — reportedly some 30 million euros ($34 million) a year through 2029 — and for what he called the small steps it fostered for Saudi women.

“We were the first ones to sign a contract that made it obligatory, if they wanted us to bring the Super Cup here, to let women into the stadiums, and they are there, and we have helped build a women’s soccer league in Saudi Arabia,” Rubiales told Cadena SER radio on Thursday night.

“On an ethical plane, we are doing a lot here to help the development of women in soccer, which is our commitment. The rest of the political questions are outside the scope of soccer.”

While women were in the King Fahd stadium for the semifinals, the crowd was overwhelmingly male.

Cadena SER radio host Àngels Barceló, whose morning show is followed by nearly three million listeners in Spain, called the federation and the clubs hypocrites.

“No regime would pay millions of dollars for someone to come from aboard to change a regime that has no plans to change itself,” Barceló said. “Spanish soccer tarnishes itself with this competition, as do the teams that participate in it. Afterwards, they will all have more money in the bank, but from now on just don’t let them tell us about values and fair play.”

Amnesty International believes that the progress is very little in exchange for helping the regime link itself to some of the world’s most glamorous clubs. The human rights organization has criticized the systematic abuse of homosexuals and continued discrimination against women.

“The fact (is) that the Spanish soccer federation has decided to collaborate in this ‘whitewashing’ of the image of Saudi authorities,” said Esteban Beltrán, president of Amnesty International in Spain.

“If we have seen some advances in these last three years, like the lifting of the ban on women from driving and their chance to play sports, including the founding of a women’s soccer league, unfortunately the well-intended words of president Rubiales in 2019 (that the Super Cup would help modernize Saudi Arabia) are far from becoming a reality.”

When asked his stance on Amnesty’s plea for the teams to wear the protest armbands, Rubiales complained that the rights group went public with their campaign days before sending the federation a written request in an attempt to create an “uproar.”

So far, the only player to speak out against taking the games to Saudi Arabia is Bilbao forward Rául García. But he focused his criticism on the inability to play in front of his team’s fans. Bilbao’s win over Atlético drew a much smaller crowd than Wednesday’s “clásico” between Madrid and Barcelona.

The tournament was first played in Saudi Arabia in 2019 just before the pandemic struck. Health and travel restrictions forced the federation to shift it back to Spain last year, with Bilbao beating Madrid and Barcelona to claim the trophy.

Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti is seeking his first title in his second stint in charge of the Spanish league leaders. Ancelotti will be without defender Dani Carvajal, who tested positive for COVID-19 in Saudi Arabia on Friday. In-form forward Vinícius Júnior may be doubtful after a muscle issue required his substitution against Barcelona.

Bilbao will again hope to rely on brothers Iñaki and Nico Williams in attack and the playmaking of Iker Muniain.

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