Soccer Match Set for Saudi Arabia Puts Its Organizers on the Defensive

Soccer Match Set for Saudi Arabia Puts Its Organizers on the Defensive

LONDON — The Italian Super Cup final has been played on foreign soil nine times, including once in Tripoli at the invitation of the former Libyan dictator Muammar el-Qaddafi. But the site for this season’s match is drawing a whole new level of criticism.

At issue is the decision of Italian soccer authorities to forge ahead and stage the showpiece game — a matchup of the winners of the previous season’s domestic league and cup competitions — in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, next month. The match would be played just months after the killing of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul and while the kingdom continues to host the largest sports piracy operation in broadcasting history.

The Italian league, Serie A, has been lobbied by human rights groups, a local journalists’ union and the Qatar-based beIN Media Group — perhaps the biggest buyer of Italian soccer television rights — to pull the Jan. 16 game between Juventus and A.C. Milan out of Saudi Arabia. (Juventus won both the league and the domestic cup last season, so Milan is the Super Cup opponent because it reached the cup final.)

Saudi Arabia, which acquired the hosting rights in June as part of a three-match deal worth 21 million euros (about $24 million), has become one of the biggest buyers of sports properties in recent years, with investments including auto races, tennis matches and, more recently, international soccer events.

It also is supporting an offer worth as much as $25 billion to acquire the rights to FIFA’s Club World Cup and to create a separate competition for national teams. The proposal has split the leaders of major governing bodies in soccer, some of whom have protested Saudi support for the piracy of multimillion-dollar rights contracts owned by Qatar’s beIN Sports.

The journalists’ union for the Italian state broadcaster RAI, which will air the Super Cup in Italy, said last month that it was “absurd and unacceptable” that the game would go ahead in light of the October killing of Mr. Khashoggi, which United States intelligence officials have concluded took place on the orders of Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Sports leaders have been walking a diplomatic tightrope since the killing. In October, for example, Avram Glazer, the American co-owner of the English Premier League soccer club Manchester United, was one of the many business and political leaders to pull out of a high-profile investment conference in Riyadh — though Mr. Glazer did attend another event in the country, for Prince Mohammed’s foundation, a few weeks later. Manchester United has earned millions from its relationship with Saudi Arabia through sponsorships and other agreements.

Last month, the world’s top-ranked men’s tennis player, Novak Djokovic, confirmed that a scheduled exhibition match against Rafael Nadal later this month in Jeddah had been postponed. Mr. Djokovic cited Mr. Nadal’s ankle injury as the reason for the cancellation, but both players had come under growing pressure to withdraw after Mr. Khashoggi’s murder.

And on Dec. 8, beIN’s chief executive, Yousef Al-Obaidly, wrote a two-page letter, which was seen by The New York Times, to Serie A’s general director, Marco Brunelli, also protesting the fact that the Super Cup game would be played in Saudi Arabia. Mr. Al-Obaidly’s frustration lies with beoutQ, a piracy operation that is seemingly based in the kingdom and that was set up in the aftermath of a blockade of Qatar led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. BeoutQ continues to broadcast premium sports content — including Serie A matches — illegally, and beIN noted that it has committed about $500 million to broadcast the Italian league games.

“We do not understand why Serie A has chosen to publicly reward the Saudi Arabian authorities by staging the prestigious Super Cup match in the country, and we would strongly ask you to reconsider,” Mr. Al-Obaidly wrote.

Many of the league’s other rights partners have not commented on the matter, including the United States-based sports management company IMG, which last year committed 1 billion euros to buy Serie A’s overseas broadcasting rights for three seasons. IMG has other relationships and deals in Saudi Arabia, including as part of a partnership to organize a European Tour golf event there early next year.

A spokesman for Serie A, citing confidentiality, declined to discuss what the league’s response to beIN would be or to comment on the specific issues raised by human rights groups and the journalists’ union.

The auto racing series Formula E also is pressing ahead with plans to host its season-opening event in Saudi Arabia later this month. The series is partly owned by Liberty Global and Discovery Communications, which has seen a number of its Discovery channels made available in the Middle East and in parts of Europe through illegal beoutQ devices. Discovery declined to comment.

“Formula E is a catalyst for change, not only with the wider automotive industry and the uptake of electric vehicles on a global scale, but also in playing a positive role in changing perceptions,” a Formula E spokesman said in an email message. “The event in Ad Diriyah is an important opportunity to showcase the power and potential of clean technologies of the future — to a country moving away from dependency on oil and demonstrating a diverse economy.”

The spokesman declined to answer questions related to Saudi Arabia’s human rights record or the death of Mr. Khashoggi.

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