Early years were marred by cancellations and low crowds
11 August ~ If Champions League holders Barcelona defeat Europa League holders Sevilla tonight, they will equal AC Milan’s record of five Super Cup wins. More interestingly the sides meet in Tbilisi, 34 years after the Georgian capital should have first staged the Super Cup. Despite endless changes to the format, criteria and venue – even the continually morphing trophy was once replaced by a plaque – the Charity Shield of European competition has finally embraced its peripheral, transient nature.
This is the third year of UEFA taking the Super Cup “on the road”. A one-off game between the holders of the two European club trophies is neither a tournament nor a final and feels almost tautological. But by settling down in 1998, for 16 consecutive Augusts at Monaco’s Stade Louis II, it has survived long enough to seem traditional. Despite including an unabashed UEFA jolly-up in Monte Carlo, the Super Cup accumulated enough backstory to risk venue changes after 2012. But it’s unlikely ever again to return to the two-leg format. The people of Prague (2013), Cardiff (2014) and Trondheim (2016) have more interest in seeing Chelsea, Real Madrid and Barcelona in a ceremonial European match than most season ticket holders at each of those clubs.
Dynamo Tbilisi won the 1980-81 Cup-Winners Cup and should have played European champions Liverpool in the following season’s Super Cup final. Whether it was the Cold War (Georgia was then part of the USSR), the fact Dynamo had leathered Liverpool in the European Cup a few years earlier or that only 12,000 attended the City Ground for Nottingham Forest’s home leg against Valencia the previous year isn’t quite clear. But in only its tenth season the Super Cup suffered its second cancellation.
A third would follow four years later: Juventus wouldn’t travel to Liverpool – even to play Everton – the season after the Heysel tragedy. English teams were banned from Europe and the days of the Super Cup appeared numbered. Yet the Cup-Winners Cup disappeared first. After 1999 the holders of the UEFA Cup, latterly Europa League, met the Champions League winners.
The Super Cup’s survival instinct was honed in chaotic beginnings. In 1972-73, Ajax refused to play Independiente of Argentina in another incidental fixture with a chequered past, the World Club Championship. A Dutch journalist filled the void by arranging home and away games against Cup-Winners Cup holders Rangers who needed a glamour fixture both for their Centenary celebrations and because they were banned from Europe – a pitch invasion after their 1972 Cup-Winners Cup final win in Barcelona led to running battles with General Franco’s Civil Guard. So, though they defeated Rangers, Ajax didn’t get UEFA’s blessing until thrashing Milan 6-1 on aggregate in 1973-74’s second Super Cup.
The fixture frequently drew small crowds, understandable when the previous season had seen the competitors enjoy incomparable European runs. In 1974-75, Cup-Winners Cup holders Magdeburg met European champions Bayern Munich in the second round of the European Cup – a Super Cup meeting became superfluous. In 1991 Manchester United and Red Star Belgrade played only one leg, won by United at Old Trafford, because of the war in then Yugoslavia. And in 1996 Juventus, having won 6-1 at Paris Saint-Germain, played their home leg in Palermo instead of Turin’s unloved Stadio delle Alpi. A full house of 35,000 Sicilian Juventus fans may have persuaded UEFA that venues less familiar with European finals was the way ahead.
FIFA’s inevitable meltdown may have persuaded UEFA president Michel Platini it was time to leave Monte Carlo’s millionaires’ playground. The 21st century Super Cup has become a corporate goldmine. But it’s now taking European winners to cities who won’t treat them as a sideshow. Alex Anderson