Supercoppa Italiana in Qatar a sign of things to come?

Might this be something of a jumping off point in the globalisation of the world’s most popular sport?

Graham Ruthven
Graham Ruthven - Special to Al Arabiya English
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For AC Milan it was the ideal way to start their winter break. With Mario Pasilic’s winning penalty kick in the Supercoppa Italiana the Rossoneri clinched their first piece of silverware since 2011, ending what had become one of the longest trophy droughts in the club’s history. But Pasilic had very few of his own fans to celebrate such a momentous moment with. Not many made the trip from Italy to Doha.

This was the second time the Italian Super Cup had been hosted in Qatar, with the 2014 match also going to a penalty shootout as Napoli edged out Juventus. For Qatar, hosting such a high profile match is just another way to show how the Gulf country is becoming a major player in elite sport, particularly football ahead of the 2022 World Cup.

But in a wider sense, what sort of precedent has been set by Qatar and China’s hosting of competitive European football matches, like the Supercoppa Italiana? Could it be something other leagues and countries look to replicate? Might this be something of a jumping off point in the globalisation of the world’s most popular sport?

Italian football in general has been more open to moving high-profile matches to other countries, even other continents. Only two of the last eight Italian Super Cup matches have been played in Italy, with China chosen four times as a host. The worldwide game as a whole has been observing the success and failure of Italian football’s global efforts with great interest. They certainly aren’t the first country to consider playing competitive matches outside their boundaries.

Premier League chief Richard Scudamore once proposed a plan which was dubbed ‘the 39th game.’ It put forward the concept of playing a round of fixtures every season in a foreign country. Manchester United versus Liverpool played in Tokyo, followed by Chelsea versus West Ham played in Los Angeles - that kind of thing.

Scudamore argued that as a product consumed around the world Premier League clubs had a duty to their global fans to once a year take the product to them. There were flaws with the idea, namely that by playing a 39th fixture the competitive balance of the league season would be warped. Certain clubs would bemoan, with good reason, that they had been handed a tougher additional fixture than others. The integrity of the entire set up would be called into question.

But the fundamental notion was raised and the prospect of competitive fixtures one day being played in foreign countries has been embedded in the collective mindset. The idea no longer seems so farfetched, especially with other sports going where the Premier League stopped short of venturing eight years ago.

NFL has led the way for sporting divisions looking to take root in a foreign country. Four competitive American football games are played at Wembley Stadium in London every year, with the NFL even exploring the possibility of basing a team permanently in the city. The NBA will also hold a regular season game in London in January. How long before the Premier League, or another major European league for that matter, follows the precedent set by their American counterparts?

There are those who will argue the hosting of regular season games abroad would only underline the detachment between clubs and their own supporters, but by taking matches around the world football would be reacting to the globalisation of the sport over the past two decades or so. Are fans who attend games more valuable than those who watch on television? Not in the eyes of the league bodies, anyway.

With only 10,000 people in attendance for Friday’s match between AC Milan and Juventus there’s an argument to be made that Qatar’s hosting of the Supercoppa Italiana did little to take the Italian game to a global audience, but nonetheless the game was underpinned by a greater principle.

The Italian Super Cup has become something of a sporting experiment, as well as an ice breaker for the rest of the European game. A channel has been forged and others will now surely pass through the waters of globalisation. Doha has played its part in what might one day go down as a footballing landmark.

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