The world of commercialized soccer really doesn't have much to say about romance. Unless you consider things like money, bank balances and profit romantic, that is. Most of us, no doubt, do not.
Yet the word romance has been in the soccer air lately, from England where they've been playing the latest round of games in the oldest of all soccer competitions, the Football Association Cup. Some of these games merit the description "romantic" -- because, thanks to the luck of the draw, they throw tiny little clubs, clubs no one has ever heard of, up against the mightiest of the land.
And it is a lovely idea, the Field of Dreams come to life. A bunch of unknown part-timers -- heck, some of the players could even be working, maybe as the local postman or the village plumber in the morning before playing on Saturday afternoon -- shares the field with the superstars of Arsenal or ManU. And what a marvelous occasion for the fans of Tinytown United, as they -- maybe 5,000 of them -- pack their little stadium to watch ... well, watch what? Mostly this is a case of lambs to the slaughter. But not always. In the 136-year history of the FA Cup there are enough examples of the high and mighty coming a cropper on those quaint little soccer grounds to keep alive the myth of romance and the magic of the FA Cup.
But that's the sad truth -- increasingly, the romance is a myth, sheer fantasy. The Cup is not what it used to be. None of the games played over this weekend promised much on the magic front. This is the third round of the cup, a stage by which virtually all of the romantic possibilities have been exhausted, for only one or two really small clubs have survived.
Forest Green Rovers (no, I don't know anything about them) revved themselves up to the point of giving second tier Derby County a nervy afternoon, but eventually went down, 3-4. Sure, there were still some eyebrow-raising results -- in particular Nottingham Forest's 3-0 win at Premier League Manchester City. But Forest is a second tier club from a large city, a club with a powerful past, twice winners of the old European Cup. Hardly a small club. Southend United, you could argue, did a bit better romantically speaking, pulling off an unlikely 1-1 tie at Chelsea. The two teams will have to play again -- this time at Southend's 12,000-capacity stadium. But again, Southend is an established pro club, not a fringe team from the boondocks.
Not much romance, then -- and not much good soccer either. I watched Forest Green, and Gillingham, and Preston North End -- all playing at home against higher-level teams -- and all three of them lost. The soccer was mostly the crude, slam-bang stuff that's always excused as "cup soccer." It had its moments, certainly - moments when it looked for a short while as though a "romantic result" was possible, but the bigger clubs, no respecters of romance and magic they, soon crushed such hopes.
The big clubs, and their money, have knocked the romance out of the cup, I'm afraid. They do not take the competition as seriously as they once did, thereby reducing its value. With their huge rosters, they can now put out a reserve team, or certainly afford to rest their top players, to play against the upstarts. These "B" teams are usually good enough -- but if they lose, well, the excuse is built-in that this wasn't the club's "real" team.
Of course, this shows disrespect for the Tinytowns, but even for them the romance may now not be as important as the finance. A game against one of the Premier League giants is a chance to make big money. A rare chance that can lead to the abandonment of thoughts of romantic glory in the pursuit of riches. And so the minnows may agree to switch the game from their wee 5,000-capacity stadium (where, maybe, romance stood a slender chance), to their opponent's 45,000 all-seater (where romance will whither, but profits will thrive).
I'd love the romance to be still with us, but the game has become too cynically cash-oriented to sustain the myth. If we still get plenty of enjoyment from an unlikely result, I think it's the result of an emotion less worthy than romantic dreams. It's pure schadenfreude, the delight of seeing the stuck-up, superior rich guys get their comeuppance. For a moment we're all Chaplin's Little Man, the pathetic little have-not getting his revenge on the haves. As an emotion, it may not have the wistfulness of romance, or the satisfaction of monetary greed -- but it is a universal feeling and it is what Chaplin made it -- it is a lot of fun.
Today, Blyth Spartans have a chance to cheer us up with some new year schadenfreude when they take on Blackburn Rovers of the EPL. No stadium-switching for Blyth; the game will be played in its Croft Park stadium (with room for 4,500 fans, most of them standing).
Blyth is a decidedly blue-collar club, from a town in northeast England, a town of grime and toil that has survived the death of its main industries, coal-mining and shipbuilding. A tough town, with a tough soccer team. Blyth Spartans have done well enough in previous FA Cups -- this is the third time they have reached the third-round, the stage when the big clubs join in. They have a reputation as cup "giant-killers," having knocked off several higher-level teams in famous games from their past. But this is their first shot at an EPL team. Blackburn will not be relishing their trip to Croft Park.
(Note: The Blyth-Blackburn game airs Monday, 3 pm ET on Fox Soccer Channel.)