Sadly, the FA Cup has lost its sheen

There was a time when the BBC would attract 6.3 million viewers for Cup Final It's a Knockout
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The Independent Online

The BBC's coverage of Saturday's FA Cup final, it is troubling yet not remotely surprising to learn, attracted only 6.3 million viewers. Heck, there was a time when the BBC would attract 6.3 million viewers just for Cup Final It's a Knockout on the morning of the great day, rising to 8.4 million for Meet the Players' Wives, and 11.6 million for Cup Final Subbuteo Challenge. Across on ITV, a similar number would watch Elton Welsby lurching up the aisle of the team bus trying, with only sporadic success, to interrupt games of three-card brag in order to conduct interviews with the players. And more than 20 million, across both channels, would watch the match itself.

Even in 1997, the last time the BBC had exclusive terrestrial rights, there were 11.1m viewers. So what has happened to the FA Cup final? In truth, I had resolved not to watch Saturday's match myself, despite being a huge football enthusiast, on the grounds that I am sick of the world's most venerable domestic cup competition being reduced to a pass-the-parcel contest between England's four richest clubs.

Arsenal, Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea have won the Cup in all but one of the last 11 years. The lesser fry, who cannot afford £20m for a footballer and then pay him £60,000 a week, have become to all intents and purposes disenfranchised.

It is a given that unfashionable clubs with limited resources are no longer able to win the league championship, as both Derby County and Nottingham Forest did under the sorcerer Brian Clough and his apprentice Peter Taylor. But the Cup is supposed to be different. It is a knock-out, celebrated for its acts of giant-killing. And while it is true that giant-killers still prosper in the Cup – lowly Wycombe Wanderers and Tranmere Rovers have performed stirring deeds in recent years – ultimately the giants always prevail.

The days when Second Division Sunderland could fell mighty Leeds United in the FA Cup Final, when Southampton could beat Manchester United, when Wimbledon could beat Liverpool, are long gone. That's why I almost boycotted Saturday's final, joining the other 6,299,999 viewers only at the last minute, just in time for Abide With Me, the traditional pre-Cup Final anthem. The tradition of more than four clubs being able to win the Cup may have evaporated, but at least we still get Abide With Me.

Anyway, it was no surprise that Arsenal won, nor that they need only draw at Old Trafford this evening to wrest the Premiership title from Manchester United. What was surprising on Saturday was that an Englishman, Ray Parlour, scored Arsenal's first goal when Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp and Freddie Ljundberg of Arsenal and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink and Eidur Gudjohnsen of Chelsea were the favourites to open the scoring. It was Ljundberg who added Arsenal's second.

But these are dangerous, emotional times in which to question the impact of overseas talent on British institutions. Besides, far from stoking the fires of xenophobia and racism, football on the whole has dampened them. The Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger, a Frenchman, and his black compatriot, the totemic Patrick Vieira, are heroes to the most illiberal Highbury season-ticket holder.

Furthermore, the only way of returning to an era when Celtic could win the European Cup with 11 players born within 30 miles of its Parkhead stadium, as they did in 1967, is in Dr Who's Tardis. Times change. Boundaries crumble. And thank heavens for it.

None the less, I can't help feeling that the forthcoming World Cup – for all the accusations of corruption flying around Sepp Blatter, the president of Fifa, world football's governing body – has become a far purer competition than our own FA Cup or Premier League. The fabulous golden trophy is not on offer to whichever team can afford the world's greatest players, but to whichever country has bred them.

To an extent, this nationality issue is open to interpretation. The Republic of Ireland has long been represented by men whose only Irish lineage derives from a grandmother who emigrated from Skibbereen when she was three, and although Owen Hargreaves of Bayern Munich – who might well be named when England coach Sven Goran Eriksson names his squad tomorrow – can genuinely be said to hail from the West Country, the West Country in question is, in fact, Canada.

But that does not stop the World Cup being a more honest competition than the FA Cup or the Premier League. The relatively paltry audience which watched the Cup Final on Saturday does not reflect a disillusion with football exactly, so much as boredom with the same old clubs winning the same old competitions. If it also meant the same old supporters playing Cup Final It's A Knockout, that really would be too much to bear.

b.viner@independent.co.uk

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