In January 2017, Marco van Basten, the former AC Milan, Ajax and Netherlands striker and current FIFA technical director, proposed a series of sweeping changes to the game including the abolition of the offside rule and the introduction of sin bins. These proposals, which are unlikely to be introduced, were understandably met with howls of disapproval from almost all quarters.
If the last 25 years of rampant commercial exploitation – accompanied intermittently by scandal and corruption – have taught us anything, it is that public appetite for football, if not necessarily the traditional match-day experience, is pretty much bomb-proof. With that being the case, tinkering with the rules of the game seems unnecessary: football has numerous problems, but few of them concern what actually goes on on the pitch.
However, there was one element of the proposals that for me triggered a memory from nearly 20 years ago. It was the suggestion of implementing “hockey-style” penalty shoot-outs in which the takers would be given the ball 25 yards from goal with eight seconds to score. This was the form of penalty shoot-out used in the North American Soccer League in the 1970s and 80s, and in the first few years of Major League Soccer, but I was pretty sure that I had seen this done in Italy too.
In July 1998, I was on holiday in Italy with my family and turned on the television to see Inter taking on Juventus in a live game. Not only was I surprised to see the Derby d’Italia taking place in a pre-season friendly, but there seemed to be some odd things occurring on the pitch too. When the ball went into touch it was kicked, rather than thrown back into play; when the tie ended goalless, it was resolved by the aforementioned hockey style penalty shoot-out (Juventus won 2-0 Alessandro Del Piero and Fabio Pecchia scoring while Inter missed all three of their penalties). Unwittingly, I had stumbled across what I would later learn was the strange world of Il Trofeo Birra Moretti.
The Trofeo Birra Moretti was a three team, pre-season football tournament organised by Heineken (the owner of the Moretti beer brand) and ran from 1997 to 2008. The format was a one day round robin, with each game consisting of two halves of 22-and-a-half minutes and any game ending in a draw proceeding directly to a penalty shoot-out. The first three editions took place at the Stadio Friuli in Udine, the city in which Luigi Moretti founded his brewery. Subsequent editions took place at the Stadio San Nicola in Bari and the Stadio San Paolo in Naples, with the participants varying each year.
As hosts, Udinese took one spot in the first three editions, while the other two slots were occupied by Inter and Juventus, historically Italy’s two most successful and best supported clubs. While the commercial rationale for this was obvious, it seems less appealing from the clubs’ perspective. English pre-season fixtures generally consist of run-outs against local lower league clubs and the odd prestige friendly against a foreign team that you’re unlikely to meet in a competitive match.
The last thing managers and coaches need while they’re trying to get their players fit, bed-in new signings and avoid unnecessary injuries, is the risk of an embarrassing result against their team’s arch rivals. News of Manchester United and Manchester City’s (ultimately aborted) friendly in Beijing last year was poorly received for these very reasons. Yet Inter and Juve faced off in all but two editions of the tournament and in one of those two, Inter’s place was taken by Milan, hardly a low-key replacement.
The explanation for this presumably comes down to a mixture of money and Il Trofeo’s unconventional format. As each match was only 45 minutes in length, Il Trofeo was not recognised by FIFA, giving credibility to any manager or fan who wanted to claim that an unfavourable result “didn’t count”. The fact that FIFA did not recognise the tournament also opened up the possibility for other tweaks to the rules, which were varied over the years. In addition to the aforementioned kick-ins and penalties, the organisers experimented with other variations such as applying the offside rule only to the final 18 yards of the pitch and short corners.
Despite the fact that the first edition was won by Juventus without scoring a single goal in normal time, (they won both of their matches on penalties with the only goals scored in a 1-1 draw between Inter and Udinese), Il Trofeo was received remarkably well. At its highest point, it drew 6,000,000 viewers, a 35% audience share. Attendances at the stadium itself were always above 50,000 which, considering that in the 2015-2016 Serie A season the highest average attendance in Serie A was Inter with 45,000, is truly remarkable. It helped that the level of excitement improved over the years: Udinese won the 1998 edition in a 4-3 thriller against Juventus (that is a goal every 6.4 minutes). In 2005, a resurgent Napoli, then in Serie C1 following bankruptcy, marked the start of the De Laurentiis era by beating Inter and Juve at the San Paolo.
The official publicity poster for the 10th Trofeo Birra Morretti in 2006, contested by Inter, Juve and Napoli
Watching clips now, you can see from the crowd’s response to the TV presenter conducting proceedings in the (plentiful) breaks between matches and halves, that the atmosphere at Il Trofeo was different from either a normal competitive match or pre-season friendly. On a neutral ground, free from the overbearing influence of the clubs’ ultras, the atmosphere looks like something between Eurovision and Soccer Aid.
The difference here was that, instead of Gordon Ramsey and that guy from Man Vs Food huffing and puffing around the pitch, you had the likes of Ronaldo, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Christian Vieri (Il Trofeo’s all-time top scorer with 6 goals) all playing in their prime. It’s little surprise then that more people who were neither ultras nor nerds, the kind of people who have probably hardly set foot in a ground in the years since preferring to watch on TV instead, found this something they could participate in.
The true sign of Il Trofeo Birra Moretti’s success was arguably the creation of Il Trofeo TIM, a similar tournament featuring both Milan clubs and Juventus, but without any rule changes. Il Trofeo TIM began in 2001 and ultimately eclipsed Il Trofeo Birra Moretti which held its final edition in 2008. Now, as the top Italian clubs, like the English teams before them, awaken to the lucrative possibilities of pre-season tours in Asia and the US, it looks like Il Trofeo TIM’s days are also numbered. In the 2016 edition, Juventus and Inter were replaced by Sassuolo and Celta Vigo, predictably ratings fell off a cliff to just over 1 million.
As we have seen, the idea of hockey style penalty shoot-outs is something that comes back time and again, probably because of the general unpopularity of the shoot-out as a way of resolving important knock-out matches. It should surprise no-one that the popularity of penalty shoot-outs is directly proportional with your team’s success in them. Accordingly, in England, penalty shoot-outs are always referred to as “a lottery”, whereas in Italy, views were quite similar in 1994, but by 2006, fans had come to appreciate the shootout as a real test of technique and character. Presumably in Germany, they would rather skip the rest of the match altogether…
A hockey-style shoot-out, the theory goes, is more of a technical test and more a reflection of a team’s “real” football ability than the standard version. This may be true, but from my observations of Il Trofeo, fans should be careful what they wish for. In a shoot-out, unlike in an ordinary one-on-one, the goalkeeper will always be fully alert and never in two minds about the attacker squaring the ball to a team-mate or a defender dealing with it before the striker arrives. As a result, he is invariably straight off his goal-line to a few yards short of his penalty area as soon as the whistle blows. This means that with only 8 seconds on the clock, the taker needs to either round the ‘keeper or lob him. Most teams will find that they probably only have a couple of players capable of doing so: your main striker and your fantasista, fine, but would you have faith in any of your defence-minded players? Even the likes of Del Piero and Nedved missed penalties in this form over the years.
One could argue that this format has the appeal of opening up the possibility of goals which are more inventive and aesthetically pleasing than a standard spot-kick, and this is true (Pecchia’s lob against Pagliuca in 1998 is one such example). However, there is also a real chance of the taker failing to get a shot off at all, either because he runs out of time or has the ball smothered at his feet by the onrushing goalkeeper: where’s the spectacle in that?
For any English fan who thinks this may present an opportunity to break the penalty hoodoo, there is one more thing to keep in mind. The 2002 edition of Il Trofeo saw the only ever appearance by a non-Italian team in the competition: Chelsea. In their first match, they found themselves in a shoot-out against Juventus and the only Englishman to take a penalty that day, or ever in Il Trofeo Birra Moretti, was Frank Lampard. He missed.
‘A lawyer by trade, Sunderland born and of Ciociarian heritage, Ricci supports Sunderland, Juventus and Italy.’