Football: United given chance to miss FA Cup

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A LEADING supporters' association last night reacted positively to the unprecedented move by the Football Association to offer Manchester United exemption from next season's FA Cup so that they can take part in Fifa's inaugural World Team Championship.

Ian Todd, chairman of the National Federation of Football Supporters Clubs, believes it is a better solution than giving United a bye to a later round. "From a supporter's point of view I would think it is acceptable because it's now a decision for Manchester United," he said.

"Supporters were concerned that the whole programme should be upset just to give favour to one team, whether that is Manchester United or whoever.

"Certainly we would have been against giving favourable treatment just so that they could play in a Fifa tournament, which has nothing to do with domestic competition."

Todd did not think the FA's proposal would damage the world's most famous knock-out competition, although it is doubtful that the Cup's sponsors, AXA, will share that view.

The ruling by the FA after consultations with United, the Premier League and the Government seems to have been made in order to boost England's bid to host the 2006 World Cup.

It was felt that if United did not take part and second choices Bayern Munich did so in their place, then Germany would gain a huge advantage within Fifa in the race to stage the 2006 World Cup.

David Davies, the FA interim executive director, said it had been "decided unanimously to offer Manchester United exemption from the FA Cup for one year, returning in the 2000-2001 season.

"For the first time, there is a competition which will produce the undisputed best club in the world and we believe that Manchester United should have the chance to be part of that. That is why we have worked as we have to find a solution to help them.

"We believe that it would send the worst possible signal to world football at a time when we are in the midst of the 2006 [World Cup] bid to turn our backs on this tournament.

"Manchester United want to help the World Cup bid but this is a matter upon which they must ultimately decide. They have asked us for help and we have given it to them."

A statement from the club's solicitor, Maurice Watkin, said: "Manchester United are now considering their position."

Manager Sir Alex Ferguson came back from holiday last week and suggested United should be given a bye into the fourth round to try to ease their fixture congestion. But that would not aid the Treble holders either - the third round is on 11 December next season and the fourth round, on 8 January, is in the middle of the eight-club World Team Championship in Brazil.

Given the enormous pride and financial incentives at stake in becoming the club champions of the world, they may well decide to accept the offer not to defend the Cup, which they won at Wembley against Newcastle in May.

The World Team Championship takes place from 5-14 January and means that United would be out of the country for the best part of a fortnight.

While some critics may view the radical approach as demeaning the historic knock-out competition, the FA were determined to help United.

The compromise was rubber-stamped by the FA yesterday and can therefore be considered to have the support of leading Premiership voices.

Davies explained that offering United a bye through to the fifth round of the FA Cup would have had major knock-on effects for many other clubs. It could have meant 400 smaller clubs having to play an extra qualifying round or the 20 Conference teams entering the competition at an earlier stage.

Extending the season was also ruled out as an option because United players involved in next summer's Euro 2000 finals would have been called upon by their countries to prepare ahead of the tournament.

The only other possible solution would have been to require United to play virtually their youth team in the FA Cup fourth round but this would have devalued the competition.