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Spain, Saudi Arabia, and social responsibility in football

ByCameron Rowland

Dec 1, 2019

It has recently been announced that the annual Spanish Super Cup – essentially Spain’s version of the glorified pre-season friendly that is the Community Shield – will be held in Saudi Arabia for the next three years. This is a deal which will see the Spanish football association (RFEF) receive £29-£34 million per year.

In today’s game, the import and export of football tournaments is surprisingly commonplace. There is consistent talk of a European ‘super league’, and controversial regimes in Russia and Qatar have won the right to be FIFA World Cup hosts, allegedly through foul financial means. It is clear that sport is inextricably linked to the regimes under which it is played.

That is exactly why some have a problem with this move. The absolute monarchy that is the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is, as is common knowledge, a little behind on the whole human rights thing. A government official and La Liga have already condemned this deal, with the former refusing to support the holding of the tournament in countries where women’s rights are ‘not respected.’ After all, we are talking about a nation in which women have only been permitted to drive since 2017, and in which relatively minor crimes can warrant the death penalty.

A wider discussion must be had about the relationship between money and social responsibility in football. This can be seen as a political and/or economic question; as footballing entities are profitable businesses, how far should we expect them to ensure that their affairs are socially responsible?

On the one hand, it could be argued that the only social responsibility of an enterprise is to deliver a profit to its shareholders. This unbridled version of capitalism can be used to justify RFEF’s new deal. The Saudi money can be poured into whatever the federation so desires: building of youth pitches, stadium upgrades or even staff bonuses. They aren’t selling arms to a dangerous regime, they are simply hosting a relatively meaningless set of football matches in a foreign country.

On the contrary, it can be said that the actions of such enterprises should be regulated in order to protect the weakest in society. The Spanish football association is showing implicit support for the controversial Saudi regime with this deal, and seeing stars such as Lionel Messi playing in the country has the potential to sway the opinions of the public.

Is money outweighing social responsibility in football? Generally, yes. However, this does not mean that modern football cannot and does not demonstrate elements of social responsibility. Football is a business, a spectacle with millions of paying customers available worldwide, and increased money is necessary for progress. If football were entirely ‘socially responsible,’ players would not be paid so highly. Then again, like it or not, efficient, positive capitalism does not give us licence to determine what private companies pay their employees.

However, trickle-down economics allows an element of social responsibility into the sport, as seen in the philanthropy of clubs and players around the world, and the fact that hundreds of people are able to support families on the payrolls of extremely wealthy football enterprises.

Where there is money, there is bound to be dodgy dealing and corruption. While deals with unsavoury regimes are undesirable, they are somewhat inevitable in the free-market that is globalised football. We must accept the bad with the good. Besides, it’s only a pre-season friendly, really.


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