From England -- well, it would be England, the only country to burden the holiday season with a heavy soccer schedule -- we've been getting the usual new year's stories. All that stuff about the marvels of the FA Cup. How the small clubs can upset the big clubs, and how romantic it all is. Exactly a year ago we had Nottingham Forest winning at Manchester City and that was supposed to be virtually miraculous. Of course, Forest was then speedily and unromantically knocked out in the next round.
Never mind. This year, it seems, we've had the beyond-miraculous, with Leeds United winning 1-0 at Manchester United. Phooey. Neither Forest nor Leeds are exactly "small" clubs for a start. And as far as the Leeds win goes, one needs to take a close look at the ManU team that Alex Ferguson put on the field. Hardly the regular starting 11.
For the big clubs, putting out sub-strength teams for FA Cup games has now become the norm. Arsene Wenger did the same thing yesterday for Arsenal against West Ham (who also "rested" some regular starters). Arsenal almost paid the penalty, but was rescued -- so we're told -- by Wenger himself who made two second-half substitutes, sending on regulars Samir Nasri and Abou Diaby, who turned the game around and ensured a 2-1 Arsenal win. (For this master move, Wenger is, inexplicably, being praised. Rather like praising a man for calling the fire brigade after he has clumsily set his own house on fire.)
Wenger made no secret of his intention to belittle the FA Cup, though he didn't put it like that. He simply made it clear that his priority is winning the Premier League. But really, it is not necessary for Wenger or Ferguson, or any of the coaches of the big clubs to say anything. Their actions in selecting what are often close to B teams spread the message loud and clear.
They leave no one in any doubt. The FA Cup is being quite openly downgraded. In fact, for those top teams that are in with a chance of finishing in the top four EPL positions -- and all the Euro money that such a finish brings with it -- the FA Cup is a distraction.
Chelsea's Frank Lampard, coating his words with some nice nostalgic flourishes for bygone cup games, told us flatly that the big clubs -- presumably including Chelsea -- now have "other priorities" and that "the FA Cup is no longer the focal point and highlight of a player's season."
Lampard was talking of the top EPL teams. But his reasoning applies equally, if not more so, to the bottom teams, struggling desperately to maintain their place in the EPL. Which means that around half of the 20 EPL teams have a very good reason -- financial, of course -- for finding FA Cup games an incubus.
There is another massively important point. Anyone who watched any of the televised FA Cup games this weekend can hardly have failed to notice the low caliber of the games. Or the poor crowds at several of them.
What can be done? The chairman of the English Football Supporters' Federation, Malcolm Clarke, appalled by the thought that the cup might become a "third rate competition with very low attendances that nobody was really interested in" has let it be known that "something" should be done.
But what? If the games are unattractive, if the fans prefer to hang on to their money, what -- apart from shepherding those fans into the stadiums and taking their money at gun point -- can be done?
Not much, I would think. Even trying to force clubs to always put out their strongest team is tricky. Recently, Wolves coach Mick McCarthy sent his reserve team to play at ManU -- where they predictably lost 3-0. His reasoning, it was widely assumed, was that his team was going to lose that game anyway; better to rest his starters for upcoming games that they had a chance of winning.
The EPL has the power to fine Wolves, or even to deduct points, either for not putting out its best team, or for the more vague offense of not "acting in good faith to other clubs." But should the EPL be telling coaches which players they can select? Is there really a credible answer to the defense offered by the Wolves' chief executive Jez Moxey that "Mick (McCarthy) picked what he thought was the best side for that match." He also added that the fans who chanted that they wanted their $68 refunded were going to be disappointed. It must surely remain within the coach's judgment to decide on his team line up. And it is clearly the opinion, right now, that cup games do not warrant fielding (though "risking" is the word in the coaches' minds) a full starting 11.
Modern times, and financial considerations, are dictating the demise of the FA Cup. It has had a long run -- this was its 137th year -- but if it has lost its appeal and its "romance," then it will -- sadly, yes -- wither away.
A lesson there for the USSF in this country, which attempts, year after year, to keep alive the increasingly inert-looking body of the U.S. Open Cup. Now in its 97th year, the Open Cup has been given some prestige by attaching to it the name of the greatly esteemed soccer pioneer, Lamar Hunt. Whether that can save it from the fate that seems to await the FA Cup (of which the U.S. version was a direct copy), who knows. But it is pretty clear that both competitions are not viewed, by the big clubs in each country, with delight. Rather they come under the heading of "schedule congestion" and as such are simply asking to be disparaged.