Complete the following sequence: Madrid, Lisbon, Milan, Tallinn, ______.
The answer is Jeddah, which is the next stop on the Madrid derby cup final road show. Spain, Portugal, Italy and Estonia have all been checked off. Now it’s time for Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid to lock horns in Saudi Arabia. It will be the fifth final the two sides have contested in the past eight years, this time in the revamped Spanish Supercopa (12:50 p.m. ET Sunday; stream live on ESPN3).
The road show for many, though, is a sideshow. The Royal Spanish Football Federation’s (RFEF) decision to take the competition to Saudi Arabia has drawn criticism at home and abroad. The new format, which sees four teams take part instead of two, has not proved universally popular, either.
“There is only one league champion and one cup winner,” Ernesto Valverde, the coach of reigning Spanish champions Barcelona, moaned before his side were dumped out by Atletico. “I find it strange that there are four teams involved.”
Under the competition’s previous guise, which saw La Liga’s top team take on the Copa del Rey winners over two legs in August, neither Atletico nor Madrid would have been involved. But with the RFEF opening it up to four teams, they qualified after finishing second and third in La Liga, respectively, joining Barca and Valencia in the Middle East.
“I think it restores some of the [competition’s] value,” Madrid defender Sergio Ramos hit back at Valverde on Saturday. “We obviously benefit this year because we’re the ‘guests,’ but maybe next year we’ll be here as league or cup winners.”
There will be a next year, too, because the RFEF have signed a three-year deal to play the Supercopa in Jeddah. The agreement is worth €40 million per season, with €20 million going to the clubs and €20 million to the RFEF to invest in grassroots football.
Valverde hinted that money was the only reason Barca were there, saying, “Football is an industry that is always looking for new ways of income. It is what it is.”
Ramos said “it’s not a bad thing” if the clubs and the RFEF benefit financially.
It is to some, though, because of where the money comes from. The bulk of the criticism RFEF president Luis Rubiales has faced has focused on relocation, not expansion. Saudi Arabia’s human rights record has led to complaints that this is the latest example of sports washing.
An open letter sent to the RFEF by Amnesty International prior to the competition alerted the federation to human rights violations, “including discrimination against women, freedom of speech restrictions [and the] extensive use of the death penalty and torture of prisoners.”
Rubiales argued that “football can open doors,” and he celebrated the fact that women would be allowed to watch the games from inside the stadium. Until 2018, women weren’t allowed in. They are now — but only in the designated areas for women and families.
It has only been since 2018 that women have been allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia. Until that point, Saudi Arabia was unique in being the only country in the world in which women were forbidden to drive motor vehicles.
It’s in motor vehicles that Barca have spent a good amount of time in Jeddah. The sprawling distances between the team hotels, the stadium and the training complexes have made it difficult to get around due to the sheer amount of cars swarming the city. Valverde and Sergio Busquets missed a news conference on Wednesday because their driver got lost.
On the pitch, the football has been fun, and the tournament culminates with Sunday’s Madrid derby. The winners will become the first side to claim the trophy without having won either La Liga or the Copa del Rey in the previous season.
A midfield-heavy Madrid produced a brilliant performance in their semifinal win over Valencia, and Atletico showed great resolve to concede only twice against Barca before making a late comeback to beat the Catalans in a five-goal thriller. Both games were played at the 62,000-capacity King Abdullah Sport City Stadium (nicknamed The Shining Jewel, and you can see why), which is where the final will be played.
Only 9% of the 12,000 tickets made available to Spanish fans were sold, but both games boasted lofty local crowds. Just fewer than 41,000 supporters saw Madrid beat Valencia, and 58,410 were present for Atletico’s toppling of Barca.
Many fans outside the ground said they had come only for Lionel Messi, mind.
“Everyone loves him in Saudi Arabia,” one supporter said.
They witnessed some magic from the Argentine — one goal scored, another ruled out for handball — but they might feel sold short to not have ended up with a Clasico final, even if a Madrid derby isn’t a bad consolation prize.
Madrid will be without the injured Eden Hazard, Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema, but they’re in good form. They sit joint top of La Liga with Barca, five points ahead of Atletico, and are beginning to click under Zinedine Zidane, who returned to the club in March for his second spell as coach.
Atletico, meanwhile, are still a work in progress after losing Lucas Hernandez, Diego Godin and Antoine Griezmann last summer. They’ve come a long way under Diego Simeone, though, and no one will be ruling them out. Before their 2013 Copa del Rey final win against Madrid, they hadn’t beaten Los Blancos in 14 years. Now, they are preparing for another final against their local rivals and have earned their respect.
“I don’t like the word ‘enemy,’ but they’re one of the teams it’s more satisfying to beat,” Madrid captain Ramos said.
The previous four finals have been split two apiece, though not one of the games was settled after 90 minutes. Madrid boast the big ones, winning the two Champions League finals the teams reached in 2014 and 2016. Atletico were victorious in the Copa and the European Super Cup.
In Jeddah, the road show rolls on. Fill in the blank: Atletico (2013), Real Madrid (2014), Real Madrid (2016), Atletico (2018), _______ (2020).