As someone active beyond his primary profession, Barcelona defender Gerard Pique’s match exploits rarely dominate discussions about him. Instead, what often sparks debate are his dealings outside the Camp Nou in reconfiguring elite tennis competitions, backing promotion-chasing minnow FC Andorra, injecting money into the virtual trading card industry and supporting the cryptocurrency movement.
Lately, as a businessman rather than a soccer player, Pique has come to bear some real scrutiny for the first time after helping to broker a deal between his company Kosmos, the Spanish soccer federation (RFEF) and Saudi Arabian officials. The agreement brings the Spanish Super Cup finals to the Gulf state in the coming seasons—a controversial plan. Each year, the most recent Copa del Rey finalists compete for the honor against the La Liga champion and runner-up from the last campaign.
Moving the mini-tournament to Saudi Arabia doesn’t sit well with many supporters and onlookers. There are concerns over people’s rights in the country, something comparable to neighboring Qatar—this year’s World Cup host—which has endured more widespread criticism towards its workers’ lack of protection and further social issues in the buildup to the international event this November and December .
The main controversy surrounding the Super Cup deal lies elsewhere, however. That’s according to the RFEF president Luis Rubiales. Rubiales is still outraged by an audio leak obtained by El Confidential relating to the negotiation—a breach of privacy in his view. Yet, juicy as that may be, the bigger takeout is Pique and Kosmos’ role in proceedings. As the agreement proves, Pique’s effect on sports governance is now more potent than ever before, for better or worse.
Business between the RFEF and Saudi Arabia demonstrates how Spanish soccer governors are now keen to strike big business deals outside the country. While the RFEF has opposed a game-changing CVC investment, La Liga has been willing. Add Kosmos to the mix, a company only five years old, and it’s an even more evolved game. Kosmos has a reputation for reinventing sports events and reportedly made €24 million ($26 million) from the €40 million ($43 million) RFEF-Saudi deal. It had nothing to say to me about the audio leak or the value of bringing the Super Cup to another land.
Money is the motivation, certainly in Spain. Saudi Arabia represents a burgeoning sports market, keen to stage quality events and shell out substantially to win them. As long as it’s legal, the other side is happy to comply. With the finals already tried out in Saudi Arabia, there is a growing, money-making trend. Destined league champion Real Madrid will presumably be there again next season, alongside Real Betis, which won the Copa del Rey on Sunday against Valencia, which will join them too.
There is reason to question a conflict of interest on Pique’s part. Pique told Forbes Spain that he doesn’t do business to make money (Spanish), yet the discussions in question hint otherwise. Given how many fans lament the tournament’s future in Saudi Arabia, it’s hard to find any other clear motivations for changing the cup’s destination. Not every fan will enjoy the show more, even if that is what Pique says he hopes to achieve.
Pique has won plaudits for his forward-thinking work off the field, but these involvements mean he is no longer just an entrepreneur—he’s involved in the decisions surrounding soccer. Considering his status as a player, having such a close working relationship with Rubiales is incredible and shows the off-field influence soccer players can have in Spain.
While the much-maligned European Super League idea has not yet taken off, moving the Spanish Super Cup abroad is a sign of what is to come. Betis and Valencia’s presence is refreshing, but the competition does more to hype up giants Barcelona and Real—whose powers helped found the Super League—are likely to be there each season. Some of the Saudi funds may trickle down to supporting Spanish soccer as a whole. But the elaborate tournament suits the headline finalists more, even if it gives teams like Betis and Valencia some more international exposure. Pique is in on this.
And so, what can you say about this Super Cup? Is it a money-making exercise or a credible, competitive trophy in its own right? Is it both?
Whatever the perception, it’s not the most popular decision and has left Pique—despite insisting he has nothing to hide—with some pressing questions to answer.