Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Final of the Cup

FA Cup.Manchester City take on Stoke City at Wembley today for the oldest prize in professional football, the FA Cup.

The days of the cup final resembling the Superbowl as a national event are clearly spent, confirmed by the FA's scheduling of Premier League fixtures on the same day for the first time.

Fixture congestion caused by the Champions League final on a Saturday at Wembley is a good excuse, but the probable upstaging of Man City
by their big city rivals winning the league on the same day also looks like the ultimate humiliation for the mother of all cup competitions.

The FA Cup will always be there like the Catholic Church, but the faithful have fallen away in recent years. Its history remains essential for an understanding of football's progress, particularly the 1883 final when Blackburn Olympic's 2-1 victory over the Ol
d Etonians confirmed the preeminence of northern professionalism over southern amateurism.

No other football nation had a cup competition which rivaled the league in prestige, but England could not remain an island forever. The cup began to lose its sheen in the early 1990s, n
ot because the UEFA Champions League had come on strong - that would occur a few years later, but rather because Sky's domestic birth had made live football commonplace and its multi-channel television was diluting the formerly nationally unifying force of the BBC and ITV. A big reason for football's popularity in the 1950s, anyone will tell you, is that apart from the cinema there was nothing else to watch.

There seems no turning back the clock with Europe's top draw absolutely dwarfing th
e Cup in prize money - £31.7 million v £3.4 million, although letting the winners enter the Champions League would surely force managers to take it more seriously and probably reduce the prospect of a Portsmouth or Cardiff making it through to the final.
Overseas coaches in England who just don't 'get' the magic of the FA Cup are often blamed for hastening its demise, but the lead of Arsene Wenger and others in fielding weakened teams has been gleefully copied by plenty of British managers too, worrying about three points on the Saturday and European qualification or relegation.

For all the earnest efforts of rights-holders ITV to talk up 'the magic', the media voices which talk of 'capturing the imagination' grow fainter by the year and more knowingly dishonest, like ailing salesmen.

Manchester City winning would confirm the curse of the second-city club is over, and a second helping of champagne for the Blues after securing Champions League qualification this week ahead of an Arab summer transfer spree. For Stoke it would be a historic first cup triumph - tell both sets of those fans it does not matter.

But Manchester United winning the league half an hour before kick-off at Wembley would see the league champions and FA Cup winners going head to head in the Sunday press, a clash that usually only happens in the Charity, now Community, Shield.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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