Barcelona’s campaign to defend the revamped Spanish Super Cup in Saudi Arabia got off to an inauspicious start as they arrived late for a training session in Jeddah on Wednesday, with a club source saying their bus driver had headed to the wrong location.
The team were due to prepare for Thursday’s semi-final against Atletico Madrid at local side Al-Ittihad Club’s training ground, but the driver instead took them to the King Abdullah Sport City Stadium where Super Cup matches are taking place.
The two venues are separated by over 30 kilometres and the team’s bus finally arrived at the training ground 45 minutes behind schedule, delayed by the coastal city’s notorious traffic levels. Coach Ernesto Valverde and midfielder Sergio Busquets were due to give a news conference before the training session but will now speak to the media afterwards due to their late arrival. Real Madrid play Valencia on Wednesday in the first game of the competition, which used to be a season curtain raiser but has been turned into a money-spinning event after federation president Luis Rubiales implemented radical changes last year. Federation members approved expanding the competition’s format from two teams to four, switching the date from August to January and transplanting it abroad. A three-year deal to hold the tournament in Saudi Arabia was announced last November which Spanish media say is worth around 40 million euros ($44 million) annually, angering human rights groups and the four teams’ traditional supporter base.
Super Cup in Saudi part of football’s desire to make money – Barca coach
Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde has concerns with the new format of the Spanish Super Cup and said that playing the competition in Saudi Arabia is a consequence of the football industry’s desire to find more revenue streams.
The Super Cup traditionally kickstarted the season in Spain with a two-legged contest between the Copa del Rey winners and La Liga champions although the 2018 edition was played as a one-off game in Tangier, Morocco.
Last year the Spanish football federation (RFEF) agreed to double the number of teams and take the competition outside Spain permanently as well as moving it from August to January.
The federation has signed a three-year deal to play the competition in Saudi Arabia, which Spanish media say is worth 40 million euros ($44 million) annually.
“I know there have been rumblings but football these days is an industry,” Valverde told a news conference ahead of Barca’s semi-final match against Atletico Madrid in Jeddah on Thursday.
“The reason why we are here and why we were in Morocco is because the authorities are looking for more sources of income.”
The move has been criticised by supporters’ groups for excluding the teams’ traditional fanbase and from campaign groups such as Amnesty International due to the conservative Muslim kingdom’s record on human rights.
Valverde also questioned the merits of opening the competition up to Atletico and Real Madrid, who ended last season empty handed.
Barca and Valencia qualify for the Super Cup as league and cup winners respectively, while Atletico earned one of the new berths due to coming second in La Liga.
The last spot was intended for the cup runners-up but as Barca had already qualified, Real took the vacant place due to their superior cup record over Real Betis, last year’s other losing semi-finalists.
“For me it’s strange to play the Super Cup with two guest teams. It’s clear that these games are exciting for the crowd but from a sporting point of view there is only one league champion and there is only one cup winner,” added the coach.
“It was always the first trophy of the season between the league and cup winners, I thought that format was fine but it has been changed. When the competition is over we’ll be able to say whether it has gone well or not.”