Controversy lingers as Saudi Arabia gets set to welcome Spanish Super Cup
Real Madrid and Barcelona will be among those tussling for the Spanish Super Cup in Saudi Arabia this week, amid controversy over a tournament held faraway from home in a country long-condemned for its record on human rights.
Spain's two most decorated clubs could face off in a Clasico final in Jeddah on Sunday if Real Madrid beat in-form Valencia and Barca can overcome Atletico Madrid in the semis.
Yet the prospect of another showdown between La Liga's leading pair has been overshadowed by criticism, with lingering concerns about a Spanish competition being played on a different continent, more than 4,000 miles (6,400 km) away.
The financial incentives on offer, both to the Spanish Football Federation (RFEF), who run the competition, and the four clubs taking part are bound to have been persuasive.
For agreeing to participate alone, Barcelona and Real Madrid will receive six million euros ($6.72 million) while Atletico and Valencia will pocket around three million euros each. If Barca and Real Madrid reach the final, it is expected they will earn around 10 million euros for the week.
The RFEF, meanwhile, has an agreement for the tournament to be held in Saudi Arabia for three years, for which it will earn a total of 120 million euros, an amount it claims will be put back into the women's game and lower leagues.
President Luis Rubiales has also said the old format, involving a final in August between the league champions and cup winners, was no longer capturing the imagination of fans.
"The Super Cup was doomed to death," said Rubiales in November.
"The money we will get is not for building a villa. It will go to women's football and the clubs in Segunda B and Tercera. Of course money is important, who can deny that? Money is very important but the money will go where it is needed."
But in exchange for bigger cheques, the RFEF is facing accusations of betraying Spanish supporters and turning a blind eye to Saudi Arabia's "heinous human rights record", as it was described by Amnesty International in November.
Saudi Arabia has followed the lead of Qatar and the United Arab Emirates by accelerating its investment in sports events to exert soft power and cast a more positive image of the country across the world.
"There is a very offensive policy to host major sporting events... to spread a different image of Saudi Arabia," Carole Gomez, a researcher at the Institute of International and Strategic Relations, told AFP.
But Rubiales believes the Spanish Super Cup can be used as a force for good.
"In the world there are food, economic, social inequalities," he said. "We can avoid it or we can try to contribute to change."
Amid criticism of Saudi Arabia's treatment of women, agreements have been reached between the RFEF and the Spanish authorities to ensure women will have free access to the King Abdullah Stadium, where all three fixtures will be played.
In January 2018, women were allowed to enter a stadium to watch football in Saudi Arabia for the first time.
"Women can enter all these events," the Saudi ambassador to Spain, Mansour Bin Khalid Al Farhan Al-Saud, told Marca last month. "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."
Fans from Spain appear unlikely to make the 10-hour trip to Jeddah, which would cost them close to 1,000 euros in flights and accommodation combined.
According to Spanish newspaper El Mundo on Monday, only 1,076 of 12,000 tickets had been sold, with Valencia selling just 26. "Nobody wants to go to the Spanish Super Cup", read El Mundo's headline.
Supporters might also have weighed up the importance of the tournament, which is considered far less prestigious even than the Copa del Rey, Spain's domestic cup competition, and pales into insignificance alongside La Liga and the Champions League.
Real Madrid and Barcelona sit level on points at the top of La Liga and all four clubs will be eager to avoid injuries, with each of them involved in the Champions League knock-out stage, which begins next month.
Madrid announced on Monday that neither Karim Benzema, their top scorer, nor Gareth Bale would be travelling due to fitness problems and Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde will be wary of over-exerting Lionel Messi too.
The desire to clinch a trophy will be checked by a need to prioritise and any celebrations may not be fully shared by those watching at home.