Football: United's Cup snub signals slow demise of tradition

THE ISSUE of whether Manchester United should have been encouraged to abandon the FA Cup in favour of a tournament thought crucial to England's bid for the 2006 World Cup finals moves each according to his or her nature.

Dedicated traditionalists raise the scream of expediency, and their number includes some who are equally quick to argue that the work load now imposed on Premiership players is detrimental to the advancement of English football. Commentators and columnists fulminate as commentators and columnists must, like those who took vehement exception to the possibility of Manchester United not appearing in defence of the FA Cup before yesterday's confirmation.

What has occurred to me, sitting here and considering the bilious responses of some fellow toilers in this trade, is that the future, the short future, will provide further opportunities to deplore action taken by the football authorities.

It seems that the day may not be far off when the Premiership will be cut to 18 clubs in accordance with world governing body Fifa's notion of a football calendar with romantic tradition subordinate to the new order.

So English football is just now in a stew of recrimination. No doubt in time the arguments will straighten themselves out and people will come to take up one of two positions, which will not necessarily be closer to the ideal because they have been over-simplified.

However, what strikes me as more disturbing than the Football Association's cavalier attitude to the oldest of football competitions is the link to New Labour's populist support for the 2006 World Cup bidding.

No good can come from government involvement in sport beyond the powers of regulating bodies but nobody needs to be told that the minister responsible for athletic activity, Tony Banks, is a much-travelled advocate for England's cause.

Not every politician of Banks' persuasion expresses as much enthusiasm for England's bid or feels that he should be spending so much time on what appears to have become an obsession.

With long practice, it is possible to forget the embarrassment of Harold Wilson's appearance on a balcony with the 1966 England World Cup team and his subsequently aborted plan to show up in Mexico City four years later, had they made it to another final.

This sort of thing, and as related to the present administration, reminds me again of advice that an American political columnist gave to Jimmy Carter, who was about to begin his term as president of the United States. Of 20 steps that were laid down for Carter, the last three were about sports.

Do not, the columnist urged, use football lingo by way of encouraging your party. Don't talk about team play or coming through in the last quarter, or giving it that old one, two. Don't invite athletes to the White House for dinner. Have the courage to decide with Harry Truman that "Sports is a lot of damn nonsense".

Unfortunately, you may think, politicians today are never slow in coming forward when there is an opportunity to be looked upon favourably by the sporting public. Why else is Banks to the fore whenever a major sporting issue arises?

I mentioned most of this the other day to a prominent figure in football who was spot-on with his prediction that Manchester United would not be appearing in the FA Cup next season. He thought this deplorable but was not greatly moved. "The more you think about the game the more you realise that big changes are inevitable, that tradition will not count for very much in the future."

As for the supposed importance of United's participation in Brazil to England's bid for the 2006 World Cup finals, I am not alone in thinking that it may come to nothing.

A lot of money spent, the public's wrath now risked on a case that is barely legitimate. Maybe the FA Cup has served its time, that it has no future in the next millennium. But, in setting a dangerous precedent, the FA deserves all the calumny it is getting.

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