In 1993, back when the International Champions Cup sounded like nothing more than the fake version of the Champions League on a video game without the proper licenses, AC Milan met Torino at RFK Memorial Stadium in Washington DC on a sunny August afternoon. It wasn’t a friendly match and it wasn’t part of a pre-season tour. There was a trophy at stake, the year’s Supercoppa Italiana, which league champions AC Milan and Coppa Italia winners Torino were going to battle for in front of a foreign crowd.
Inaugurated in 1988, this was just the sixth edition of the Italian season’s competitive curtain-raiser and the decision was taken to play the fixture overseas. Paolo Taveggia, who had been an AC Milan director until a few months before the match, wanted to promote Italian football in the USA one year ahead of the 1994 World Cup in his new role as president of International Sports Consultants. “We see soccer in the United States as presently standing on the threshold of greatness and we hope to play a major role in its growth and development,” Taveggia said at the time. So the decision was taken to stage this one-off overseas Super Cup match, the first time any of the major five European leagues had gone abroad for their equivalent.
There was mild to lukewarm excitement about the fixture in the US and, while there were still some empty seats, a total of around 25,000 attended the game. “For the Italian soccer power AC Milan to play a game in Washington is almost equivalent to the Chicago Bulls making a grand entrance in London or Paris,” the Washington Post remarked the week before the match.
In Italy, though, not so many were pleased about the decision, including the coaches of the two clubs. “It will not be easy,” AC Milan boss Fabio Capello said. “We also must remember that the heat will affect us heavily.” Local journalists were scathing of the decision too. “For a few dollars more, Italian football now crosses the ocean of tradition that had seemed uncrossable and we will stage an official match in a foreign stadium with a foreign referee,” wrote Corriere Della Sera’s Costa Alberto. “Will this be the new way of football or is this just a risky experiment, destined to dissolve in the suffocating grip of the American summer?” he asked.
Well, much to many in Italy’s dismay, the experiment didn’t completely dissolve. This one-off overseas match, won 1-0 by AC Milan, was followed by eight Italy-based Supercoppas, played in Milan, Turin and Rome. But then, in 2002, the show went on the road once again, this time to Tripoli, Libya.
Already the Gaddafi regime had an interest in Italian football, as explained by Mahfoud Amara in his book ‘Sport, Politics and Society in the Arab World’. “The integration of global sports business for local political and economic gains has also been the strategy of Gaddafi’s regime, represented by the Libyan Arab Foreign Investment Company (LAFICO), which took advantage of Juventus’ flotation on the stock market by buying a 7.5% stake in Juventus for an estimated fee of £14m,” he writes. “To this effect, the son of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, the then-chairman of the Libyan Football Federation, joined the board of Juventus. As a result, the pre-season Italian Super Cup final between Juventus and Parma was played in Tripoli in August of 2002.”
The match was won 2-1 by the team from Turin and, with a credible attendance of 40,000, it was deemed enough of a success that Tripoli was also awarded the 2004 edition, even if it was eventually moved to the San Siro because of what league president Adriano Galliani described as “very serious reasons” and “organizational obstacles” at a time of increasing instability in the region.
By then, though, the Super Cup had already been played in the US again, going to Giants Stadium in 2003 and a clear trend had now been set. The event was then played at the Olympic Stadium in Beijing in 2009, 2011 and 2012, at the Jassim Bin Hamad Stadium in Doha in 2014 and 2016 and at Shanghai Stadium in 2015. Saudi Arabia is now set to host three of next five Italian Super Cups.
It’s not just the Italians, though, who have moved their Super Cup overseas. The French equivalent, the Trophée des Champions, followed suit in 2009. For the country, this was an even bigger deal as this test between the league and cup champions was first held in 1949, much earlier than the Italian Super Cup, and the event had never left France, even if it had once been played in the overseas region of Guadeloupe.
In 2009, the French footballing authorities decided to take the match to Montreal. “It’s time for French football to conquer new markets,” league president Frédéric Thiriez explained. “The idea of exporting the Trophée des Champions was a must and an ideal gateway into North America. We are pleased to have this first experience with our Canadian friends.” And so, Bordeaux and Guingamp flew out to Canada, with the former beating the latter 2-0 in front of around 34,000, an impressive gate considering the two visiting clubs were more like the Flint Michigan Tropics than the Harlem Globetrotters.
Such a success was this trip abroad that the Trophée des Champions has not been played on French soil since. The next year it was taken to Tunis in Tunisia as “a new opportunity to promote French professional football abroad”, then to Tangier in Morocco, Harrison in the USA, Libreville in Gabon, Beijing in China, Montreal again, Klagenfurt in Austria and then Tanger again in 2017. In 2018, it’ll be contested between PSG and Monaco in Shenzhen, China.
Tangier will next host the Spanish Super Cup, doing so in August of this year. The Spanish equivalent of this clash between the league and cup winners has been going in some format since 1940, but this will be the first time that it is held abroad. Officially, the reasoning is that there is no opportunity to play this normally-two-legged affair in the usual format this year and that a one-off match at a neutral venue is the only possible alternative, given the late start to the season due to the World Cup and given Copa del Rey runners-up Sevilla’s participation in Europa League qualifying. Surely, though, the Stade Ibn Batouta in Tangier would never have been considered as an option had the Italian and French versions not already set a precedent.
For that reason, it’s surely only a matter of time before Germany’s DFL-Supercup and England’s Community Shield also pack up their bags and head off abroad, having never previously done so – unless you count the six years it was held at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium abroad.
Of the smaller leagues in Europe, there is less likelihood that their Super Cup matches will soon cross the border, for the simple fact that there would be less interest in the participants than there would be, for example, for a Chelsea versus Manchester City match in Doha or a Bayern Munich vs Borussia Dortmund game in Beijing. The Turkish Super Cup is one example of a more minor league playing outside of the territory, but the large Turkish population in Germany made their 2006, 2007 and 2008 fixtures in Frankfurt, Cologne and Duisburg a logical move.
On a European-wide level, the UEFA Super Cup could soon cross borders as well, in this case crossing the continental map lines. Already UEFA have taken the decision to move this match around the continent and to give it to smaller cities, most of which could only dream of hosting a Europe League or Champions League final, cities such as Tbilisi, Trondheim, Skopje and this year’s venue of Tallinn. UEFA president Aleksander Čeferin hasn’t ruled out taking the Champions League to cities like New York or Beijing, so there’s a good chance that the UEFA Super Cup could go first to lead the way and set up base.
Football has come a long way since Italy’s Washington adventure a quarter of a century ago and it’s now normal for the world’s biggest teams to spend pre-season on a different continent. In fact, it’s odd when they don’t. But low attendances at this year’s International Champions Cup may be suggesting that foreign fans want to see competitive football with a trophy at stake. Much easier than organising a Game 39 is to send a country’s Super Cup on tour. Expect even more of it in the coming years.