With all due respect to the clubs who started their qualifying campaigns last August, the FA Cup starts in earnest today.
The final itself apart, the third round of the FA Cup is the highlight of the football season. It is, as the cliche goes, the great leveller, the day on which the underdog, so revered in the English psyche, is due its day. And, despite the paucity of major giantkilling acts in the last five years, Chesterfield's antics last season restored faith in the concept of the FA Cup as the proverbial banana skin for the Premiership fat cats.
It is for that reason - particularly in today's game, where money invariably dictates the pattern of play - that we like to think of the FA Cup as unique. The English have always been renowned for having a nice line in self-deprecating humour, but when it comes to the FA Cup we certainly know how to blow our own trumpets.
Frankly, we've every right to. The FA Cup is the world's oldest domestic cup competition, unsurpassed by any domestic competition in any country anywhere in the world. Its status was underlined by the cries of "Sacrosanct!" which greeted the notion of sponsorship (at least the concession was made to call it the FA Cup, sponsored by Littlewoods Pools, although its pioneer Charles William Alcock must still have shifted uneasily in his grave).
Nowhere else, however, do they have such qualms; hence the reason the Danes compete for the Compaq Cup, the Hungarians for the Samsung Cup and the Dutch for the Amstel Cup. However, in these, and in most other European nations, the domestic cup competition is regarded as little more than a free ticket into Europe; few have the characteristic glamour, far less the magic and the romance, of the FA Cup.
Take Belgium, where La Coupe was abandoned for over 30 years (between 1928 to 1953 and 1957 to 1963) until the carrot of European competition became too great to resist. However, it is still a low-key affair: the final is preceded by the women's equivalent and you can actually buy a ticket on the day.
Or Switzerland, where it's apparently customary for second and third- round ties to be held at tiny provincial grounds, with crowds to match.
Or the Netherlands, where the KNVB Beker is small-fry to clubs like Ajax and PSV, who, as in Italy, regard the league as the true barometer of form. Mind you, La Coppa in no way resembles the FA Cup; it is only competed for by Serie A and Serie B teams plus 10 from Serie C and totally ignores the lower echelons of the Italian League. Teams like Bologna, Vicenza and Fiorentina might regard it as a welcome chance to capture some silverware, but, for the likes of Juve, Milan and Inter, defeat in the cup hardly constitutes a crisis.
It is a similar story in France, at least according to Chris Waddle, who was in the Marseilles side which lost 1-0 to Monaco in the 1991 French Cup final. Waddle maintains the French Cup "isn't really one for the big boys; if they get knocked out it's a scalp, but certainly not a disaster." He says that the beauty of the FA Cup lies not just in the giant-killing possibilities but in the lure of a Wembley final. "We played the French Cup final in the Parc des Princes but I'd already played there twice that season, so it meant nothing."
David and Goliath, meanwhile, obviously have no place in Spanish folklore since the Spanish Cup is traditionally dominated by the giants; for the smaller clubs it's more a money-making than a reputation-building exercise. Cas-tilla did shock Spanish football by reaching the final in 1980, but they faced Real Madrid - which is like Manchester United playing Manchester United reserves - and a 6-1 hammering put paid to any high-falutin' ideas they might have entertained. (Spanish television, incidentally, gets amazingly high viewing figures for FA Cup matches and Canal+, which screened Margate's second-round match with Fulham live, will be showing three live third- round ties as well as extended highlights).
Trust the Germans to try to spoil the party, but the DFB Pokal, the German Cup, is admittedly the one domestic cup competition that rivals the FA Cup in the sense that it is organised to maximise the slip-up factor for the leading clubs: the seeded first round is drawn so that no two teams from the same division play each other, and the lower division side always plays at home, guaranteeing upsets galore and plenty of money at grass- roots level. Bayern Munich have twice come a cropper against village sides during the 1990s, while the Third Division side Eintracht Trier have reached this season's semi-final stage, disposing of Schalke 04 and Borussia Dortmund in the process.
Of course, last season's "family" Scottish Cup final between Kilmarnock and Falkirk breathed new life into what was a relatively tired old institution, but Rangers' Brian Laudrup, who won a Danish Cup medal with Brondby in 1989 and a Scottish Cup medal with Rangers in 1996, still maintains there is nothing to touch the FA Cup. Laudrup says the Danish Cup "never gathers momentum until the semi-finals, the Italian Cup is a non-event and, though the Scottish Cup invokes plenty of passion, nothing can compare with the FA Cup."
If recent transfer speculation is anything to go by, Laudrup might get his chance to play in the world's greatest domestic competition sooner rather than later...
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