Mike Rowbottom: Look beyond predictable finals to prove old dreams persist

All week I seem to have been reading articles about why the FA Cup isn't what it used to be, with Manchester United's decision to shun the competition in favour of the 2000 Fifa World Club Championship being cited as a key part in its downfall.

Do you remember who won the one and only Fifa Club World Championship? Beats me too. Yet it also seems to be forgotten that United were put under huge pressure to play ball in Fifa's new game in order to keep England in with a chance of hosting the 2006 World Cup finals. Some chance. As things turned out, the only result worth remembering from that benighted outing in Brazil was this one; Politics 1, Sport 0. Although England's humiliating failure to secure the World Cup meant that the politicians lost heavily on aggregate.

Following the Government's decision to seek the 2012 Olympics for London, many people are now wondering whether those same politicians can afford further demonstrations of their lack of passion or understanding when it comes to sport.

This, remember, is the same Government that promised London would host the World Athletics Championships and then, having raised withdrawn proposals involving Wembley and Picketts Lock, eventually offered Sheffield. Which, as the members of the International Association of Athletics Federations cunningly worked out, was not London.

It would be nice to think that Manchester's subsequent success in holding the Commonwealth Games, and Birmingham's impressive staging of this year's World Indoor Athletics Championships, played a part in persuading Cabinet members to back an Olympic bid. It would be nice to think they embraced the Olympic ideal rather than being guided fearfully towards it by a series of nods and winks from their lord and master. So I'll think that.

Because the Olympics, for all the recent tales of doping, woe and corruption, are special. They retain something intangible and invaluable which has to do with the importance competitors invest in it. Having covered the last three summer and winter Games, I know well enough that not every moment of every contest resonates with historic significance. But, whatever turn competition takes, it is imbued with the cachet of being Olympic.

As the runners set off in the 5,000 metres heats, you think to yourself: "This is the Olympics.'' As the sprint cyclists bow their heads on the track before the off, you think to yourself: "This is the Olympics.''

As the curling skip leans to release her stone upon the ice, you think to yourself: "This is the Olympics.''

It is the best competition there can be. It produces moments that are fitted into a historical store of memory. Get it wrong here, now, and you will have to wait four long years to put it right. If ever.

If the giant tree of world sport were to be shaken many boughs would crack and fall, dead from within.

But events such as the Olympics and the World Cup finals are, have to be, the living trunk. Without the kind of excitement they produce, sport is meaningless. It becomes merely exercise and commerce.

Which brings us back to the question of the FA Cup final. There is no disputing that this annual sporting event no longer draws people towards it in the way it used to. And the terrestrial TV viewing figure for the 1985 final in which Norman Whiteside's goal enabled a 10-man Manchester United to see off the holders, Everton, was 17.2m. An average total of 14.9m terrestrial viewers tuned in to the 1991 final to witness Gazza's folly and Tottenham's victory. But since the terrestrial screening contract went to ITV exclusively in 1998, viewing audiences have failed to reach eight figures. By 2001, only 6.7m saw Liverpool beat Arsenal thanks to Michael Owen's late goals, and when BBC took the contract over last year the figure for the Arsenal-Chelsea final was 6.3m.

The dominance of the game's big four – Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool and Chelsea – over the past 13 years has also diminished the competition's reputation for surprise. Since 1999, when Crystal Palace so nearly managed to upset the odds against Manchester United, this group has secured the trophy 11 times.

But if the finals have delivered little by way of the unexpected in recent years, the main body of the competition is still coming up with the goods. Teams such as Wycombe Wanderers, Canvey Island and Watford have been enriched by their FA Cup exploits – and not just through television fees.

For as long as the entry remains as wide as it is now, the FA Cup cannot fail to produce genuine sporting excitement. And the presence of Southampton in today's final indicates that the old dreams persist. If they could beat Arsenal, it would provide still further justification for the continuing presence of the world's oldest football competition.

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