Fiorentina is in Saudi Arabia right now for the Supercoppa Italiana. Why, you may ask, is Fiorentina in Supercoppa, which pits the previous year’s Serie A winner against the winner of the Coppa Italia (and as you may recall, the Viola won neither)? And why is the Supercoppa in Saudi Arabia? Well, there are plenty of reasons. And they’re all stupid. Let’s run through them, shall we?
This is a pure money grab.
The Supercoppa was originally scheduled as a curtain raiser on the Serie A season, played in the summer before the league season kicked off. In 2018, however, the league office FIGC decided to start playing it in the winter in 2018 instead, allowing more teams to engage in lucrative preseason friendlies. Why would the calcio allow one of its flagship events to get bumped into the hurly-burly of the regular season?
You know the answer as well as I do. It’s the economy, stupid. Saudi Arabia is paying €138 million to host the game until 2029, and that’s an outrageous amount of money for a game that’s just a step more than a friendly. I’m not saying there’s something necessarily wrong with grabbing the cash and running; if reinvested properly, that sum could really help the Italian game grow. But we have to remember, running through the next few items on this list, that money is the only reason the Supercoppa’s happening this way.
This puts inordinate stress on the players.
“Riyadh isn’t as far from Italy as you might think. It’s a 5 hour direct flight and it’s only 2 time zones behind, so there isn’t too much jet lag to deal with. It’s basically just an extra European fixture, and nobody complains too much about those. Sure, it’s tougher on the body, but we’re talking about professional athletes here. They can manage it, especially since it’s warmer than anywhere in Italy right now. It’ll be a nice little vacation.”
Okay, Mister Straw Man. That is indeed the script for shrugging off concerns about player welfare in the Supercoppa, and it ignores the obvious problem of fixture congestion. Sure, Serie A has scheduled games so that every team has at least 4 days of rest between its last league game and the tournament, and then another 6 days between the final and the subsequent league game.
Sounds great until you realize that the 4 teams involved—Fiorentina, Napoli, Inter Milan, and Lazio—all miss a gameweek the other teams play, which means an extra Serie A match gets stuffed in somewhere down the line. In Fiorentina’s case, that means shoehorning an extra game against Bologna into the midweek next month, right as the Conference League knockout stage starts ramping up. If the Viola had hoped to get a moment to catch their breath and rest some key players ahead of the end-of-season gauntlet, well, too bad.
We’ve already heard managers around the world decry the stress of the modern season, which forces teams to play twice a week for months at a time, leading to injuries and burnout at unprecedented rates even at clubs with the most resources and deepest squads. For teams like Fiorentina that can’t compare with Manchestery City or Real Madrid in terms of rotational options, the Supercoppa flies in the face of logic, placing the burden of another 90 or 180 minutes on already-tired legs. It’s too much calcio.
Lazio coach Maurizio Sarri raged against the new Supercoppa Italiana Final Four format in Riyadh. ‘It’s anything but sport, we just take the money and run.’ https://t.co/8VtmFYM6r3 #Lazio #Napoli #FCIM #Fiorentina #Supercoppa #SerieA #Calcio #SerieATIM #SupercoppaItaliana— Football Italia (@footballitalia) January 14, 2024
This shouldn’t be a tournament.
The Supercoppa has always been a one-off, a showdown between league winner and cup winner. This year, though, the format has changed to a 4-team tournament, featuring the Serie A and Coppa Italia champions and runners up in a playoff and title game. It’s a naked bid to give Saudi Arabia more bang for its buck, more games it can market itself with, and the result is a muddled mess of games.
Let’s not pretend like the Supercoppa is a storied competition. It’s only existed since 1988 and has always been little more than a glorified preseason friendly, or at most a chance for braying jackasses to claim that a season’s been successful due to winning a trophy that most fans agree means nothing. The Supercoppa isn’t a Mickey Mouse competition, but it’s within touching distance.
And now it means even less. By giving the runners up a crack at the trophy, the FIGC has reduced this competition to the point of absurdity. Imagine if Fiorentina wins the Supercoppa, despite having finished 8th in Serie A and fallen short in the final. That is not a resume that should put a club in contention for a domestic title of any kind, no matter how silly it is. It cheapens an already cheap thing to the point of devalorizing it completely.
This isn’t for the fans.
A ticket to see Fiorentina play Napoli in the first game is comparable to a ticket at the Stadio Artemio Franchi. The difference is that a flight from Firenze to Riyadh costs somewhere around €640, which is simply not a reasonable ask for most fans. Add in lodging costs and the trip becomes a significant portion of a regular person’s yearly income. According to Federico De Sinopoli, head of the Associazione Tifosi Fiorentini (the biggest collection of registered supporters groups), the total cost is somewhere between €800 and €1000 per person.
Too, a fan flying from Florence has to make a choice: Plan on Fiorentina beating Napoli and advancing to the final 4 days later? Or plan on attending just the first game, then scramble to find a hotel and a new flight in case the Viola win? The new setup leaves supporters over a barrel, unable to be sure they’ll get their money’s worth. And when that money could be a thousand euros, it’s simply not tenable. It’s no surprise that the Viola fans aren’t expected to attend, and are indeed actively protesting the decision to play this game in Saudi Arabia.
❌ La Curva Fiesole mostró ayer una pancarta en contra de la Supercoppa en Arabia.— ACF Fiorentina (@Sp_Fiorentina) January 15, 2024
"No es un posicionamiento, solo un sentido de razón. No a la Supercoppa en Arabia Saudí". pic.twitter.com/RrSbzeia6u
Much like the discourse around the World Cup, though, the argument is that local fans will make up the numbers in the 25,000 seat KSU Stadium. This is, after all, a very rare chance for Saudi fans to see some of Europe’s most storied teams in person. And it sounds like Saudi Arabia is indeed feeling something about the impending arrival of Fiorentina. That emotion, of course, is disappointment.
According to the Corriere della Sera (via OneFootball), the Saudi administration isn’t thrilled that Fiorentina and Lazio are in the competition, as they’re smaller clubs. Presumably, whoever’s in charge would have preferred Juvents or AC Milan, but that’s not the way it works. And with the Rossoneri and Atalanta reportedly ready to step in if Fiorentina and Napoli had dropped out, it’s hard to imagine that the Viola feel particularly welcome.
This is sportswashing.
We’re all grownups here and can acknowledge that modern soccer is pretty gross. The only people who own teams are billionaires who, in the best case scenario, take advantage of a system that leads to systemic injustices to garner unthinkable wealth. With that wealth, generally speaking, comes some kind of soft political power, the kind that allows behind-the-scenes shenanigans that are unavailable to the vast majority of people.
In a world that is rife with economic inequality, this class of people is the most obvious illustration of how economic and political systems are leveraged to the advantage of a few at the expense of many. To put it in simpler terms, I’m not in favor of billionaires in general, as they represent a weaponization of financial power that lays wasted to billions of their fellow humans.
I believe that sports are inherently political. Here in the US, every NFL game is accompanied by the national anthem, a flyover of fighter jets, and empty performance of respect for the armed forces, which are all extremely political gestures. While these are some of the most glaring examples, similar ones exist at every major sporting event, usually deployed to prop up the status quo of a government that does exponentially more for its richest citizens than the others.
The difference between team-owning (or really any) billionaires working in the shadows and what’s happening in Saudi Arabia, however, is significant, in that Saudi Arabia, as a sovereign nation, has decided to get into the sports business. There’s a difference between someone as scummy as Silvio Berlusconi using his political influence to favor AC Milan and the Saudi government owning Newcastle. Instead of working in the shadows, Mohamed Bin Salman and company are doing the dirty work right out in the daylight. And yes, the work is dirty.
EXCLUSIVE— Adam Crafton (@AdamCrafton_) January 16, 2024
Newcastle chair Yasir Al Rumayyan faces $74m lawsuit for allegedly “having carried out instructions” of Saudi Crown Prince MBS, with “malicious intent” of “harming, silencing & ultimately destroying” family of Saudi ex-intelligence chiefhttps://t.co/cqgS5eI8y4
This is not an attack on regular Saudi people, some of whom are genuinely overjoyed to see Fiorentina and other teams in person in their own nation. I hope they attend the games and have an experience to last them a lifetime. As fans, we should all hope that for our fellow fans. The thrill and privilege of watching your team, especially if it plays somewhere distant from you, is one of the few happy things we’re afforded in this world, and I want everyone who’s interested to have that opportunity.
What this is an attack on, though, is the greed to which Italian soccer authorities have given themselves over to entirely. The Supercoppa is a silly little trophy that’s being used to make some very rich people even richer at the expense of those who make calcio what it is: the players and the fans. I’d say that this is the moment that the sport has lost its soul, but that would be a lie. That moment came and went long ago, and this shambling husk we see is a daily reminder that sports are for the ultra-rich, and any benefit the rest of us get is merely a crumb spilled from their table.