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FA Cup struggles for relevancy


The FA Cup would be nothing without its traditions. Every third-round weekend the regular old rituals are trotted through: the grainy shots of finals past, the semi-knowing talk of the romance of it all, the hand-wringing about how the luster can best be restored to "the oldest cup competition in the world." The FA Cup is a peculiarly English event, not just because it stretches back to 1871-72 and the prehistory of the game, but because it is something that is never as good as it used to be.

There is always talk about how to improve it. Some say it should be seeded to try to ensure the best teams reach the final. Some say there should be no replays. Some that the team lower down the league pyramid should always play at home to try to encourage upsets. Some would move it to midweek slots, preserving the weekend for the league. Some would take the semifinals away from Wembley so that that trip to north London for the final retains the magic it once had when it really was a once in a lifetime event -- if that -- for the majority of noninternational players. Some would give the winners a place in the Champions League.

But actually, Sunday proved what is needed to stimulate interest in the Cup: brilliant football. It didn't matter what competition the Manchester City vs. Manchester United game was in, it was compelling to watch, the sort of match that sends Twitter into a frenzy and will have workplaces, schools and pubs humming for the rest of the week. It was a magnificent spectacle not because it was an FA Cup game, and not despite being an FA Cup game, but because it featured two teams of similar ability tearing into each other as a referee who is having a difficult season struggled to keep up.

The Peterborough vs. Sunderland game that followed on national television in Britain was the exact opposite, and showed why people have been turning away from the FA Cup. The Championship side didn't play especially badly, but it was comfortably outclassed. Martin O'Neill, the Sunderland manager, admitted "you could have expected a little more from a Cup tie" in the first half, but then a professional, no-frills display was probably exactly what he wanted.

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There have always been games like that in the Cup, of course, and there always will be when teams of different abilities play each other, but the difference now is that the league is far more stretched than ever before: there are far more mismatches, and so giant-killings, supposedly the lifeblood of the Cup, happen far more rarely. There is probably a balance to be had -- too much giant-killing and a significant dilution of quality in the latter stages is probably a bad thing -- but competitive soccer, matches fans can watch without knowing which side is going to win, are a prerequisite of a meaningful tournament.

Even if the global world of soccer had a damascene conversion and reversed every policy of the past 30 years so that instead of the rich getting richer there was a general move toward competitive balance, though, the FA Cup final wouldn't have the appeal it had in the seventies and eighties. Back then, everybody watched the Cup final because it was just about the only game on television. In the eighties it was rare for even a dozen league games to be televised over the course of a season. Not until 1990 were both FA Cup semifinals screened live. The FA Cup final always seemed enthralling because it was so rare to be able to watch soccer. Now, we're used to having 20 or 30 live games available per week from all around the world: if the soccer isn't entertaining, why would anybody watch it? And, frankly, with mismatches and Premier League clubs regularly playing weakened teams, the FA Cup has struggled in recent years.

That issue of weakened sides is a vexed one, because it taps into the core of what soccer should be. There are a cluster of clubs in the Premier League -- the likes of Everton and Aston Villa, certainly, and perhaps teams like Stoke City, Fulham, Newcastle United and Sunderland -- who are established presences. They have the players and the resources that relegation should only ever be a distant threat (Sunderland and Newcastle, of course, have both gone down recently; but in the past 15 years it has never taken either of them more than two seasons to get back up). They are not, though, really strong enough to challenge for Champions League qualification; they exist in a slightly dull middle ground.

Realistically, they have nothing to play for. They tick over. They keep the bank balance relatively steady. Each season they beat a couple of big teams and lose to a couple of poor ones. Essentially, the Cups are their opportunity to do something out of the ordinary, to break the routine. Yet in recent years the habit has been for that tier of mezzanine sides to rest players, to focus on avoiding relegation and doing as well as they can in that mid-table dogfight (and with each Premier League place worth £800,000/$1.2M it's understandable why.) Soccer, though, isn't just about accounting; it must also be about the pursuit of glory, and the FA Cup offers that. Significantly, all six of those teams listed played more or less first-choice sides to see off weaker opposition; perhaps the message is getting through.

And it's that, far more than any gimmick, that will give the FA Cup the maximum possible luster: get teams actually trying to win it again. That's what produces exciting soccer, as Sunday's Manchester derby proved. In that regard, the draw has been kind. U.S. viewers can look forward to the Clint Dempsey vs. Landon Donovan clash as Fulham face Everton; there's a potential west London derby as QPR (if they beat MK Dons in a replay) play Chelsea and, most enticingly of all, Manchester United's reward for beating City is a trip to Liverpool. Those are games to savor, and games that pique the interest make a competition worthwhile.

Jonathan Wilson is the author of Inverting the Pyramid; Behind the Curtain; Sunderland: A Club Transformed; and The Anatomy of England. Editor of The Blizzard.