In the beginning… there was a Cup, one that is now 142 years old, but increasingly football is about league matches. This weekend’s FA Cup ties complete a knockout marathon across Europe with ties in Spain, Italy, France and the Netherlands, as well as the semi-finals of the Capital One Cup.
However, aside from the latter, unless you have subscription television or study the small print in the newspaper results pages you may not have noticed.
Most domestic cups have a low profile. Few general websites include them in results listings, not even the otherwise comprehensive BBC and Uefa sites. Nor does World Soccer carry them.
The exception, we were always told, is the FA Cup, the final of which the world grew up wanting to play in and whose status matched the league title. That may have been the case when it was almost the only match broadcast live on television, but now there are dozens of those every week.
The 1970 Cup final replay between Chelsea and Leeds United was watched by 28.49 million viewers, then more than half the British population. The final now brings in around 10m viewers.
Coupled with the rise of the Champions League, it is not just accountants who have downgraded the competition. The media focus is now on the soap opera of the Premier League and its ever-evolving plot lines. The players, especially those from overseas, prefer the Champions League. Even the fans, to judge from attendances, no longer view the FA Cup as special.
There are exceptions – such as Friday’s full house for Arsenal v Coventry at the Emirates or any tie when the home team may achieve a giant-killing. But average Cup attendances are nearly 50 per cent down on 1970 while league gates have recovered to the levels set then.
The Football Association is constantly examining ways in which it might revive the FA Cup’s profile (partly because this is its flagship competition, and partly because the TV rights are a major source of income, so its status needs to be maintained).
Anything seems likely to be considered given that recent changes have included the tea-time kick-off for the final, flogging the naming rights, allowing the draw for the next round to be held while the current one is still in progress, holding semi-finals at Wembley, and abolishing replays after the quarter-finals.
Since none of these is popular with fans, but all suit commercial interests (or the big clubs) a pattern may be discerned.
One obvious area of study is overseas. So how do other major football nations conduct their cups? For the most part the other cup competitions lack the spark, status and venerability of our own.
That Spain, Italy and the Netherlands were conducting quarter-finals in midweek, in January, says much about those competitions’ standing. So do the gates. In the Coppa Italia’s previous round, home clubs averaged half their usual attendance.
There are exceptions. The German Cup (DFB-Pokal) last-16, played last month, did draw 50,000-plus gates at Schalke and Hamburg, but also less than 8,000 at Wolfsburg. Meanwhile in Spain’s Copa del Rey (King’s Cup) neither Levante nor Espanyol sold out their first-leg quarter-finals despite Barcelona and Real Madrid being the respective visitors.
Another indication of prestige is who actually plays. The Copa del Rey grows in importance as the final nears and Barça and Real put out virtually full-strength teams (including Lionel Messi, Xavi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale), but in Italy Juventus had the likes of Carlos Tevez, Gianluigi Buffon and Paul Pogba on the bench for their defeat to Roma.
In France Claudio Ranieri sent Radamel Falcao out to play fourth-tier opposition despite Monaco playing Marseilles this weekend. Falcao scored, but was then injured and looks like being out for the rest of the season. That could happen in any game, but Ranieri later complained about the opposition’s tackling.
The Coupe de France is the nearest that the Continent has to the FA Cup, not least in playing many fixtures on weekends. In Italy and Spain the competition is pre-drawn, like a tennis tournament, thus robbing it of some of its spontaneity and anticipation.
Further reducing the romance in some countries, the entry is limited to the best 80-odd clubs. This partly reflects less depth to their professional football set-up than in England, but it also means less scope for outlandish giant-killing.
In Germany, in theory, any club can reach the competition as the winners of 21 regional cup competitions qualify, but it is France that copies the FA Cup “open” ethos. Indeed, the French go further. English teams drawn away to Guernsey, of the Ryman League One (South) may think that the travel adds some glamour, but in France teams could be crossing the world.
France still maintains close ties with parts of its one-time empire. Outposts like Guadeloupe, in the Caribbean, and Réunion, off the African coast, are regarded as part of metropolitan France for most governmental matters and other far-flung corners such as French Polynesia are also closely connected. This applies to football too.
So in this year’s Coupe de France the footballers of ASM Belfort, a small city in eastern France, went to Tahiti to play AS Dragon in the seventh round, while Paris FC went to Réunion. Costs are assisted by the French FA (and, via subsidised air fares, the French government).
One aspect the FA could adopt is the French and German practice of smaller clubs playing at home when they are drawn against significantly higher opposition.
This increases the chance of giant-killing, as does the fact that all ties have to be settled on the day. However, in recent years some small French clubs have switched ties to larger stadiums to make more money, which rather defeats the point of it.
Only in Britain do replays survive. They are an important source of income so they should continue for a while longer, although as pressure grows on leading clubs’ fixture lists they may be dispensed with from the fifth or sixth round onwards.
It is a difficult balancing act for the FA, trying to maximise income (which is distributed to clubs at all levels – £25m this year – or fed back to the organisation) while maintaining the factors that make the FA Cup special – and thus attracts income via TV, sponsors and fans.
Mistakes have been made, but the responsibility of cherishing the Cup is ours too. The old competition provides more memories than league games can. From Bournemouth to Sunderland, enjoy the weekend.
Comparing the cup competitions: how it is done across Europe
FA Cup (originated 1871-72) Final Wembley
Entry 737 Who Deep into the part-time levels
Format Unseeded draw. Replays until semi-final.
Coppa Italia (1922) Final Stadio Olimpico, Rome
Entry 78 Who Down to Serie D (fourth-tier)
Format Fully drawn at start. One-off ties, two-leg SF
DFB-Pokal (1935) Final Olympic Stadium, Berlin
Entry 64 Who Bundesliga One+Two, leading amateurs Format Seeded. Bundesliga teams away v amateur. One-off ties
Copa del Rey (1903) Final Venue varies
Entry 83 Who Top three divisions
Format Fully drawn at start. Two-leg until final
Coupe de France (1917-18) Final Stade de France, Paris
Entry 7,656 Who All clubs including overseas
Format Clubs away if two levels higher. One-off matches.