In the second week of January 2023, the Spanish Super Cup will kick off in what is now its established venue in Saudi Arabia, under its new format - two semi-finals and a final. Invited are the top two finishers in the previous season’s Liga and Copa del Rey.
It remains to be seen if that includes both Spain’s pre-eminent clubs.
Real Madrid will be there, almost certainly, as 2022 Spanish champions. The cup finalists Valencia and Real Betis have their places. But if Barcelona do not finish second in La Liga, where they are in a tight jostle to finish as runners-up to Madrid, they will not be entitled to participate.
That would mean a loss of important income for Barca from a lucrative event but, it has emerged this week, not so damaging financially for their defender Gerard Pique, whose involvement in the staging of the Super Cup extends well beyond whether or not he’s there.
The multi-talented Pique is president and executive adviser to the successful sports and media company, Kosmos Holdings, who brokered the deal between the Spanish Football Federation and the Saudi-based SELA Sport group for the long-term staging of the expanded Super Cup.
Kosmos, it was revealed this week, received a commission worth around €24 million ($26m) for the six-year agreement, starting in 2019, to host it in Saudi Arabia. All of that commission was paid to Kosmos by the Saudi organisers.
There is no suggestion of any impropriety from the Saudi end of the deal, but various disclosures this week by the El Confidencial platform, including reported audio conversations between Pique, acting on behalf of Kosmos, and the president of the Spanish Federation, Luis Rubiales, have put the relationship between the Barca player and the governing body of Spanish football under scrutiny.
The leaked conversations suggest the initiative for the revamped Super Cup came from Pique. And they leave other Liga clubs in no doubt how he regards the hierarchy of his sport in Spain.
One recording, of a dialogue in the lead-up to the 2019 Super Cup, has Pique apparently outlining to Rubiales the possible distribution of payments for the expanded tournament amid doubts about Real Madrid’s backing of the project. “If it’s about money, if they [Madrid] would settle for €8m, and €8m for Barca, the others get €2m and €1m, and the Federation are left with €6m,” Pique is alleged to have told Rubiales.
In the 2019 Super Cup, those “others” were Atletico Madrid and Valencia, who at the time complained about the uneven distribution of payments. This week’s revelations prompted Atletico head coach Diego Simeone to ask that “it is explained to us so we can be more clear. It obviously suits the Federation for Real Madrid and Barcelona to be involved [in the Super Cup].”
It suits the hosts, too, to have a possible audience-grabbing clasico on the Super Cup menu. Pique acknowledged that the long-term agreement with the Saudi venue includes a clause that hosting rights would be worth less in any year one or both of Real or Barca do not qualify.
That could happen for the first time in 2023. Despite a disappointing 0-0 draw at home to Granada, Atletico leapfrogged Barca into second in the table having played two games more. Barca play at Real Sociedad on Thursday.
Rubiales insisted “there is no conflict of interest” in a player also having a role in the staging of a federation-run tournament, or that the value of that tournament to Spanish football’s governing body depends on whether Pique’s Barca are participating in it.
The Super Cup expansion, he said, was a great success and had guaranteed, over 10 years, some €400m to Spanish football at a crucial time, given the economic impact of the pandemic: “It has saved many smaller clubs.”
Pique said the decision to prefer the Kosmos-brokered Saudi base for the tournament over alternative bids had been “100 per cent a Federation decision. I simply helped Rubiales to find a formula that made sense to him.”
He added that he knows the federation president well partly because Pique played for the Spain team - he retired from internationals in 2018 - for the best part of a decade.