This Wednesday will see the 44th UEFA Super Cup, while the weekend before last hosted three national super cup competitions in France, Germany, and England. Kicking off the new European season with a bevy of super cups now seems inevitable, but such competitions have not always existed, nor have they always been used to mark the start of the new season.
The oldest of these tournaments, the English FA’s Charity (now Community) Shield, dates back to 1908, although the format of pitting league and FA Cup winners against one another was not established until the 1930s, nor its pre-season timing until 1959. Both France and the Netherlands hosted one-off super cups in the summer of 1949, probably as a kind of lead-up to the post-war reboot of the World Cup in 1950. France then introduced the Challenge des Champions following the second post-war World Cup, which ran from 1955 to 1973. It was usually played in the summer, though about a third of the time it served as a season opener, and twice as a mid-season game.
The real spread of this tradition on the continent, however, began with the 1972* introduction of the European Super Cup, a two-leg, home-and-away tie between the winners of the European Cup (now the Champions League) and the European Cup-Winners’ Cup (replaced in 1999 by the UEFA Cup/Europa League). Like the Challenge des Champions, that competition was played as a kind of mid-season friendly, often during the winter break. In 1974–quite likely in response to UEFA’s new competition–the Charity Shield was moved to Wembley and formally established as an official announcement of the new season. UEFA then experimented with playing the 1975 and ’76 Super Cups in August, but returned to their midseason format until 1998, when it moved to its current place at the start of the season, reduced to a single match at a neutral venue.
These competing formats spread slowly across Europe’s major leagues over the following decade. Portugal initiated its Supertaça in 1979 (renamed the Supertaça Cândido de Oliveira in 1981) on the British model but switched to the UEFA’s two-legged, midseason competition in 1980. Spain followed with a UEFA-modeled Supercopa in 1982. Having abandoned the Challenge des Champions in 1973, France briefly revived it as a midseason game in 1985, but only for two seasons. Germany initiated a single game, summertime DFL-Supercup in 1987 which continued into the early 90s. Italy began a single-game, midseason Supercoppa the following year, but shifted to the start of the season at the beginning of the 90s. Having been among the first in the field in 1949, the Netherlands finally established the Johan Cruyff Shield on the British model in 1991. France, too, returned to the world of super cups in 1995 with a midseason Trophée des Champions that was quickly moved to summer in 1997 (with no 1996 tournament thanks to Amiens winning the double).
In general, however, the 1990s saw the majority of these competitions not already set up on the British model move in this direction. Portugal first adopted a pre-season date in 1990, though the change didn’t stick until 1993. By 1992, Germany had also made the switch, and Spain did so in 1994. Finally, in 1998, even the UEFA Super Cup shifted to the start of the season, while also adopting the single-game model. With England, Italy, and the Netherlands already boasting a pre-season date, France was the only major league not to open with its super cup. Having only started in 1995, the Trophée des Champions did not shift to the start of the season until 2012. And with Portugal shifting from two legs to a single game in 2001, only Spain retained UEFA’s original, two-leg model–and did so until last year’s Supercopa.
But even as the super cups converged on a shared British model in the 90s, two experiments would lay the seeds for a shift away from that model. In 1991, Germany’s DFB tried a 4-team Supercup tournament. Though they returned to the single-game model in the following season, in 1997 the DFB-Supercup was replaced by the DFB-Ligapokal, a six-team competition involving the the top four Bundesliga teams available (the tournament often overlapped with the Intertoto Cup, which took precedence), the cup winner, and (after the first season) the winner of the previous season’s Ligapokal. The DFB-Ligapokal ran for eleven years before Germany returned to a single game format in 2008, though not officially labeled as a DFL-Supercup until 2010 (it also alternated between summer and pre-season until settling on the latter in 2014). For the time-being, the tournament model seemed to have petered out.
Italy was responsible for a second 90s innovation that would begin to spread a decade later. In advance of the 1994 World Cup in the United States, the 1993 Supercoppa was played in Washington, DC, presumably as an effort to cultivate this underserved soccer market. A decade later, in 2002, the Supercoppa would be played in Tripoli, Libya. It was staged in China three of four years from 2009 to 2012, returning to China again in 2015 between two contests staged in Qatar during the winter break. In 2009, France followed suit, seeking out a different foreign host for the Trophée des Champions each year, typically in French-speaking destinations–including twice each in Montreal, Quebec and Tangiers, Morocco. The UEFA Super Cup was in some respects both a leader and a follower in this trend. When the competition switched from a two-leg affair to a one-game season opener in 1998, it settled in Monaco. But in 2013, UEFA allowed the Super Cup to begin wandering, albeit within Europe. Since 2015, the year before Slovenian Aleksander Čeferin was elected president of UEFA, that wandering has increasingly turned to Eastern Europe, with Georgia, Macedonia, and Estonia all hosting Super Cups within the last four years.
If there is a current trend in super cup matches, it is probably the consolidation and expansion of this exporting model, with a particular focus on nations seeking an increased influence in football. This season and next, the Trophée has settled in Shenzhen, China. Last year, the Supercoppa again returned to the Middle East over the winter break, this time to Saudi Arabia. This winter break will again see the Supercoppa in Saudi Arabia–but it will not be alone. Having staged its first single-game Supercopa in Tangiers last year, Spain is not only moving this year’s competition to Saudi Arabia over the winter break, but also expanding it to a four-team tournament.
Whether this expansion of the Supercopa marks the vanguard of a new era of expanding super cups along the earlier German model remains to be seen. If it does continue, however, it will undoubtedly do so as part of an ongoing push to export games to nations seeking influence through football. Wednesday’s UEFA Super Cup will be played in Istanbul, Turkey–though it should probably be noted that the 2020 edition is already scheduled in the traditional football powerhouse of Porto. Still, the temptation to seek out wealthy host nations with an interest in extending their influence is likely to continue. Given last year’s Europa League final in Baku, Azerbaijan, and next year’s Champions League final in Istanbul, it is not merely super cups that are likely to feel this pull.