By Ridge Mahoney
The English FA Cup final is Saturday. Do you care?
Probably not. Once a marquee event that riveted audiences around the world and brought much of England to a standstill, the FA Cup final just doesn’t measure up in a soccer-saturated society. Wembley Stadium will be awash in the colors of Manchester City and Wigan Athletic when “God Save the Queen” is played shortly before kickoff. OK, fine. The rest of the globe will be doing something else.
Far less glamorous than the Champions League and not nearly as sexy as the Premier League, the nostalgic romance of a competition open to the ranks as lowly as a pub team adorned with a glittering history of upsets and shocks has lost much of its luster.
But I’ll be watching, just I did as a kid when the game was shown weeks after the fact on ABC’s Wide World of Sports, or live on ESPN or Fox Sports World/Fox Soccer Channel/Fox Soccer. Fox Sports will show it live on its main broadcast channel, FOX, with Gus Johnson and Warren Barton in the house, plus studio coverage emanating out of its Los Angeles studios.
It will be treated as a big deal, as it should be, and not only since it started up in 1871.
Picking a team to root should be easy, since former Sporting Kansas City midfielder Roger Espinoza adds to the underdog appeal of Wigan Athletic, which is in relegation danger and on paper doesn’t stand much of a chance against rich and powerful Manchester City. Yet the owners of Man City are on the brink of plunking down $100 million, or so the story goes, to join MLS and we should all be grateful for that.
But since they officially haven’t signed on yet, and none of that money will find its way to me, c’mon you Latics!
Sorry to lay on yet another cliché, but this is what the Cup is all about. Upsets, at every stage of the competition but especially in the early rounds, mark the tournament’s history. Minnows still reach the final but don’t win nearly as often as they once did. Last year, Budweiser signed on as official sponsor, which seemed to confirm the corporatization of a grand old tradition.
From 1973 to 1980, three teams in the Second Division -- one rung below the top tier, known quaintly in those days as the First Division -- not only reached the final but won it: Sunderland against heavily favored Leeds United in 1973, Southampton vs. Manchester United in 1976, and West Ham United over Arsenal in 1980.
(Watching in those days meant getting into a pub hooked up with the satellite feed well before the 7 a.m. Pacific Time kickoff. Many times the place was packed and I can only say several beverages stronger than coffee and orange juice were being quaffed at that early hour. Afternoon naps were the order of the day.)
Scrappy Wimbledon’s triumph at the expense of mighty Liverpool in 1988 had David-vs.-Goliath written all over it. (I watched that one at a bar in Washington, D.C., and reveled in a slightly more rational time of 10 a.m. Eastern to start drinking.) But times have changed.
These days, upstarts are perceived to devalue the competition rather than enhance it. Teams regularly send out weakened squads, preferring to concentrate their resources in other areas. Two modest clubs, Cardiff City – then in the League Championship, i.e. the second division -- and Portsmouth, reached the 2008 final and popular reaction ranged from disdain to indifference. Both teams were back in the final for the first time since the pre-World War II days and Cardiff City had a chance to emulate the feats of Southampton, Sunderland and West Ham but fell short.
Stoke reached first final two years ago and kept it close against Man City, but lost, 1-0. Nowadays, the final regularly produces Premier League meetings: Chelsea-Liverpool in 2012 (brought to you by Budweiser, did I mention that?), Chelsea-Everton in 2009, Chelsea-Manchester United in 2007, Arsenal-Manchester United in 2005, etc.
(Full disclosure: I adopted Chelsea as my team after it beat Leeds United in an FA Cup final replay many moons ago. I deeply regretted that decision until about a decade ago, yet it still grates to see good men like Roberto Di Matteo callously cut loose six months after attaining a historic pinnacle. Following Chelsea is a vicarious exercise at best since I don’t hop across the Atlantic regularly to take in matches at Stamford Bridge. But a loss still pisses me off, and tying at home doesn't feel good, either.)
The Latics’ big day at Wembley comes as they are mired in a relegation battle. A 3-2 home loss to Swansea last week makes Wigan the top candidate to join Queens Park Rangers and Reading in the League Championship next season. In 18th place, they are three points behind three teams in the safety zone with two games to play. Manager Roberto Martinez, one of the class men in the game, is among the candidates to replace David Moyes at Everton. So subplots abound.
So I’ll be watching with a clear-cut rooting interest. I can’t say I’ve been diligent about watching the cup final year-in and year-out but this time I’m getting back to my roots, bad pun intended.