I can’t remember the last time I watched the FA Cup Final. Over the last 15 years, it’s outcome has become a distraction rather than event, the result of which you come across by chance rather than seek out, like the result of a horse race or some golf event in the Middle East.
It wasn’t always so. When I was growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, the FA Cup Final was a red letter day in the domestic football calendar. You got up early to prepare for it. The entire schedule of BBC Grandstand was devoted to it. Celebrity fans came into the studio and had penalty shootouts, cameras followed the teams through their pre-match meals and on to their buses, there were outtakes of the teams performing their songs on Top of the Pops, and on one occasion, a special episode of Jim’ll Fix It was interwoven into the schedule in which one young fan got to deliver the match ball to Wembley Stadium.
It was pure carnival, and by the time the game kicked off at 3pm, you were breathless with anticipation.
The games rarely disappointed either. I can remember Mick Mills drinking a bottle of milk whilst being interviewed after Ipswich beat Arsenal in 1978. I can remember Alan Sunderland clasping his hands in prayer after getting on the end of Grahame Rix’s wonder cross in Arsenal’s 3-2 defeat of Manchester United in 1979. I can remember Steve McKenzie’s 25-yard volley for Manchester City against Spurs in 1981, which is still one of the best goals I’ve ever seen, even though that match is generally noted for Rickie Villa’s mazy dribble through the heart of the City defence to score the winner.
During a period of 6-7 years, it was as if every final was the greatest game of football ever played. By the end of the 90 minutes, and on several occasions, 120 minutes, you were on some sort of natural high, the only antidote to which was to go outside and started kicking a football off the garage wall for 2 hours.
Then, later in the evening, you’d settle in for Match of the Day, and relive the day in mellow satisfaction, savouring the monosyabllic interviews with the key players as they sped along in their coaches with the trophy perched on the table in front of them.
And then it all just went a bit flat.
Manchester United, who hadn’t been a regular final partcipant in several years, starting showing up and turning in clincal performances, like beating Brighton 4-0 the 1983 final replay. There were a couple of other decent finals in the late 1980s, but then from 1994 through to 2000, which was the same period in which the Premiership began to grow in stature, we had a series of finals in which the only the winning side scored.
Then, Wembley was closed, and the final moved to the Millenium Stadium for 6 years, which removed more of the gloss. Manchester United’s Champions League victory in 1999 had also had a dramatic impact on english football at this time, in that the top flight teams were now focusing on it more, leaving less bandwidth for making a decent fist at winning the FA Cup. In 2000, Manchester United didn’t even contest the competition, despite being holders, preferring instead to participate in the FIFA World Club championship.
The stars of the FA Cup Final also began to change. The heroes of past were local boys: Trevor Brooking, Norman Whiteside, Ian Rush, Ronnie Whelan, Andy Gray. The heroes of the modern FA Cup were chic Italians (Roberto Di Matteo), surly Frenchmen (Eric Cantona) and athletic Africans (Didier Drogba) none of whom seemed to regard the FA Cup Final in the same esteem as their English and Irish counterparts.
By the time the final returned the new, and far less iconic, Wembley in 2007, it’s star had well and truely dimmed, and a drab final between Chelsea and Man United didn’t do much to reverse the trend. The 2008 final, between also-rans Portsmouth and Cardiff, was another drab 1-0 affair, by which time the prestige of the FA Cup Final was buckled beyond repair.
It was all a bit sad really, like mislaying some sovenir of your childhood, and what is worrying now is that the World Cup seems to be heading the same way.
In the past, the World Cup had always been insulated from the sort of influences that killed off the FA Cup as competition of any real significance.
It was held during the summer, so there were never any other competitions competing for the attention of players and fans. No other competition comprised so many teams, it only rolled around once every 4 years, it felt new and refreshed, with a new host country, and new rising star, a new surprise team, and generally a new winner.
Every competition also seemed to feature a least one wonder game, in which 2 teams left their blood and guts on the field. Who can forget the the 1982 semi-final between France and Germany, the 1986 final between Argentina and Germany or England versus Cameroon in 1990?
The 1994 competition in the US was a something of a speed bump, during which OJ Simpson diverted the attention of the US media, and we had our first final to be decided by a penalty shoot-out (Diana Ross missing a penalty in the opening ceremony didn’t help either), but in 1998, the fairy tale of France and Zinedine Zindane winning the competition on home soil restored our faith. 2002 in Japan and South Korea was a novel affair, and in 2006, Germany organised an excellent competition which although not notable for any particular match, featured some of the best football across the entire competition that we had seen in several decades.
Then came South Africa in 2010. From the word go, with 50,000 vuvuzuelas blocking out the traditional noise of the crowd at the opening match, it just didn’t feel right. After a couple of days, we started seeing empty seats at out of the way stadia, which was unheard of in previous competitions. The failure of the host nation to qualify for the second round was yet another setback, and when the final African participant, Ghana, were robbed of their place in the Semi Final by a cheating, cheering Luiz Suarez, the sparkle of the competition seemed to fade away completely.
The final, between the Netherlands and Spain, never really had the potential to inspire either. In fact, it probably did even more damage to the memory of the competition, in that it was most notable for the Dutch fans booing referee Howard Webb as he received his medal, after he refused to award the Dutch a late free-kick, despite the Dutch team having attempted to hack the more talented Spaniards to pieces for the previous 85 minutes.
There was something missing in terms of the star players too. The likes of Zico, Platini, Maradona and Zindane had been the greatest players of their time, and had always showed up with great performanes when they played in the World Cup, but in 2010, the world’s supposed greatest players, Lionel Messi and Christiano Reynaldo scarely cobbled together a decent performance between them. Messi’s failure to even score a goal in the 2010 World Cup is particularly notable.
All of this could of course be just a blip. 2010 was the first World Cup to be staged in Africa, and like the 1994 competition in the US, it may well be that the competition just didn’t travel well.
But what is worrying now is that the next 3 World Cups don’t hold out much promise of redemption.
The 2014 staging in Brazil should on paper be a fantastic World Cup. Brazil is the spirtual home of football, and the country knows how to party, which would seem to be a good start.
But Brazil is also a country in political turmoil, which has somehow managed to lumber itself with hosting both a World Cup and Olympics in the space of 2 years, which has left many Brazilians wondering if the billions of dollars being spent on the World Cup could not be better used elsewhere. How and if this will contaminate the competition itself remains to be seen, but it does not bode well that certain teams competing in the recent Confederations Cup didn’t even want to leave their hotels.
Then, in 2018, we’re off to the vast expanses of Russia, where players and fans will have to take 4-5 hour flights between venues. In 2016, we will also have had the first 24 nation European Championships in France, which raises the question as to what appetite the average football fan, or European players, will have for another 32 nation tournament in the same continent 2 years later.
The real test will however be 2022, when, after another 32 nation European Championships in 2020, the World Cup heads to Qatar. Nobody in FIFA seems to have figured out yet how a football competition can be played in temperatures of 40C+, on rock hard pitches, in a country where you can only buy a pint in a Luxury hotel, but that hasn’t stopped FIFA awarding the competition to the Qataris anyway. Sepp Blatter has suggested that the competition be played during the winter, but then again, Sepp thinks that the absence of goal line technology in football, and the inevitable controversies it produces, is all part of the fun of the game.
The appeal of the World Cup is therefore in for a real trial over the coming decade, both for fans and players. The FA Cup faced a similar trial 20 years ago, and deflated like a 3 week old party balloon. I fear the World Cup is in for a similar experience. Prestige is something that is hard won, easy to lose, and virtually impossible to recover.