Offside, 23 February

The FA may be pawning the family silverware, but sponsorship is not the reason the Cup has been devalued.

Duleep Allirajah

Topics Politics

From next season the FA Cup will be sponsored by German energy company E.ON.

The issue of sponsorship is a thorny subject in football. The Football Association says that the money will be invested in the game’s grass roots but traditionalists argue that commercial tie-ups like this devalue this venerable institution. At one time the FA clearly agreed with this view, shunning any commercial sponsorship of the world’s oldest cup competition until 1994 when it struck a deal with Littlewoods.

McDonalds and Pepsi were amongst the companies reportedly bidding to get their name on the Cup but, typically, it was the Germans wot won it. The fact that McDonalds was overlooked at least means we’ll be spared the customary scare stories about American corporate sponsors violating hallowed soccer traditions. You know the sort of thing: the rebranded McCup will be presented by Ronald McDonald, Abide with Me will be replaced by a burger flippers’ choir singing ‘We’re Lovin’ It’, and players will be contractually obliged to gorge themselves on supersize Big Macs.

Whether the commercial partnership with E.ON will further diminish the FA Cup’s worth is debatable but clearly other changes have already devalued the Cup. Anyone who watched Match of the Day last Sunday will have been struck by the rows of empty seats at Villa Park. Attendances at other fifth round ties were equally disappointing. Although Brentford took 5,000 fans to Charlton, there were still swathes of empty seats at the Valley. ‘It’s hard to comprehend why the FA Cup isn’t capturing the public’s imagination’, complained Charlton chairman Peter Varney. (The prospect of watching Charlton might have had something to do with it, Peter.)

The FA has been criticised for playing fast-and-loose with time-honoured cup traditions. As well as sullying the Cup with a sponsor’s logo, the FA has been slated for allowing Manchester United to opt out of the tournament and compete in the FIFA World Club Championship, staging FA Cup draws on a Sunday evening for the benefit of TV rather than the traditional Monday lunchtime slot, bringing forward the third round from January to December in the 1999/2000 season, and letting non-league teams switch their home ties to league grounds.

In a rather pathetic attempt to resuscitate an ailing tournament the FA has even tried to resurrect some of these traditions. The competition was restored, albeit temporarily, to its sponsor-free status in 2002 and the cheesy Lottery-style Sunday cup draws have been ditched in favour of the classic Monday lunchtime ritual.

Frankly, I can’t get that worked up about when the FA Cup draw takes place. It’s only two men pulling numbered balls from a velvet bag, for Christ’s sake. It’s not as if Premiership managers are thinking: ‘Right, that’s it. If the FA can’t be bothered to do the Cup draw properly, then I can’t be arsed to field a full strength team in the next round’.

Ultimately, the FA’s attempts to restore the tournament’s diminished lustre by reviving antiquated cup traditions are doomed to failure. Premiership managers will continue to rest star players for cup ties because the FA Cup is no longer the biggest prize in domestic football. In effect it’s a consolation prize for teams that cannot win the league or secure a Champions league spot. And, if the big teams no longer take it so seriously, then this diminishes the value of the competition for everyone else. Giant killing is invariably cheapened if you’re only trying to slay a reserve Goliath rather than the first choice giant.

But, though the FA Cup has become devalued, that doesn’t mean it has become completely valueless. Winning the cup might not be a Premiership manager’s highest priority, but a good cup run still means something. Witness the wild celebrations sparked by Manchester City’s last minute equaliser against Aston Villa. If the game didn’t matter at all then Micah Richards wouldn’t have been booked for his excessive goal celebration or ticked off by Garth Crooks for swearing in his post-match interview.

The one fifth round tie that was played to a packed house and which generated what the pundits call ‘a real cup-tie atmosphere’ (which means you could hear loads of obscene chanting before the 9pm watershed) was the Liverpool v Manchester United tie. The quality of the football wasn’t great but the atmosphere was electric. Why? If there was a league table of football rivalry, the hatred between Mancs and Scousers would be right up there.

But this particular clash was more eagerly awaited than usual because of one man: Gary ‘Badge-kisser’ Neville.

After all the controversy following Neville’s winding-up of the Scousers in the recent meeting between the teams, we were glued to our sets because we wanted to hear Neville’s every touch greeted with boos; to see what missiles would be hurled at him (a few coins and a burger as it transpired), to guess which Liverpool player would be the first to clatter him, and to decipher the words to those terrace taunts about his sexual habits.

Gary Neville’s provocative goal celebration generated more public interest in an FA Cup tie than a hundred trailers promising us ‘Great Drama from the BBC’ ever could.

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Topics Politics


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