The FA Cup – if you have to keep telling yourself that the magic hasn’t gone, the magic has probably gone. But gone for who, exactly?
Certainly not for Tranmere Rovers who, in the third round, overturned a three-goal deficit away to Premier League Watford, winning the replay in extra time.
Certainly not for the dozens if not hundreds of youngsters who made their professional debuts in the competition this season.
And certainly, palpably, explicitly not for Shrewsbury Town – their 2-2 draw with Liverpool was football at its magnetic best. For 25 second-half minutes, we all forgot about the inexhaustible petro-dollars, the primadonnas, the literal war-mongers and could revel in the muddy, unprocessed, batshit brilliance of the real beautiful game.
But in modern football, market forces matter more than magic, and the standard-bearers for this cynical and joyless doctrine are Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola. Recently, the latter opined that the League Cup should be abolished altogether, citing his hitherto unseen but apparently deep-seated concern for Harry Kane and Marcus Rashford, both of whom he believes have sustained their recent injuries because of fixture congestion.
Fixture congestion didn’t stop his Manchester City side scoring four or more goals on 13 separate occasions last season, three or more on 29 (twenty-f*cking-nine!). Fixture congestion didn’t stop them winning five trophies in two years. Fixture congestion didn’t stop them accumulating 198 points over two Premier League seasons.
And yet Guardiola – who has spent over half a billion pounds in three and a half seasons on these shores, who has given precious little playing time to Phil Foden, whose rhetoric consistently mandates the concentration of power in the hands of the ‘super-clubs’ and who will probably have left for PSG or Juventus by next year – has the temerity to claim that his disillusionment is born of goodwill towards English football.
Jurgen Klopp has thrown a similar hissy fit. Clearly being two-billion points clear in the league and handed a Champions League draw against a side who have won just one of their last ten away games isn’t enough of a leg-up to provoke him into giving a monkey’s about the oldest cup competition in the world.
He revealed he wouldn’t be present at Liverpool’s replay with Shrewsbury at Anfield and will field a team of children instead of his usual bombastic starting 11. Last time they did this – a 5-0 defeat to Aston Villa while Salah, Henderson, Van Dijk and company were off galivanting among the Qatari oil fields – Liverpool’s matchday squad numbers added up 1289. A record, surely.
An iota of sympathy can be afforded to Liverpool’s snood-clad German ringmaster in that the replay with the third-tier strugglers takes place during the Premier League’s inaugural winter break. In this sense, Klopp fielding a weakened team is partially understandable, even if the likes of Adrian, Keita, Fabinho, Matip, Lovren and Lallana and are fit and have all played less than 1000 minutes of football this season. The fact that Klopp himself will not be present at a senior match, however, is utterly unforgivable.
He is essentially foregoing the chance to win a treble – the glory of glories which marks excellent teams out from epoch-making ones – in order to make a vapid point about the scheduling of fixtures. The only people who stand to benefit from such a melodramatic display of bourgeoise egotism are Neil Critchley (Liverpool’s Under-23 coach) and Shrewsbury Town.
Even for the latter, there’s an argument to be heard that they would rather have their day out against top-class opposition rather than a spirited but ultimately feeble Liverpool pastiche. The youngsters themselves are unlikely to derive any meaningful benefit from playing a middling League One team, nor will they profit from being the unwitting poster-boys for a match which serves as a showpiece for the plight of one of English football’s most beloved institutions.
Klopp has many a sympathiser within the band that consistently conflate the controversial with the revolutionary. It’s true that this season has been a rolling road machine for his side, but Liverpool are a Rolls Royce. And, at the risk of labouring the metaphor, the best cars are the hardest to handle; a swollen fixture list is the handicap the best teams have to endure if they want to carry on being the best. Success breeds success; winning football matches breeds more football matches.
The FA Cup isn’t dying because the magic is fading, the magic is dying because the FA Cup is fading. For the first time ever, fifth-round ties will go straight to extra time rather than to a replay. The best football team in the world’s kryptonite? Playing lots football, apparently. Klopp has been one of the most vociferous critics of replays. He’s one of many managers to treat them as an irksome sub-item rather than the enchanting quirk and lucrative money-spinners for lower league clubs that they are.
This is just one way in which the DNA of the Cup is being eroded, defaced by a handful of grotesquely wealthy clubs who are itching to form a European Super League, the armchair fan applauding like a seal. The democratic ethos which made this 732-team tournament so special no longer exists on planet football.
At some point, the FA Cup and League Cup won’t be worth the big clubs’ time anymore. It is for this reason that international football has never been more important. It will soon become the last outpost for the noblest principle in sport and the oldest adage in FA Cup lore, that anyone can play – and in theory, beat – anyone else.
Wealth insulates the wealthiest in international football too, of course. The last four World Cup winners have all been affluent European nations, their infrastructure making it possible to factory farm elite talent rather than it arising organically. But the absence of transfers means that nations largely have to rely on squeezing all the juice from their own fruits rather than profiting from others’ labour.
Mind you – international football, like agriculture, is not the wholesome livin’ off the fatta the lan’ business it once was. National teams rely on growth hormones and yield-boosting steroids as much as the ranchers nowadays, although only allegorically. Hopefully. Citizens being naturalised by countries for the sole purposes of football has become the norm. And, while some nations are more culpable than others (China, Qatar, Russia et al.), everyone is doing it. If the regulations allow it, can you blame them? Why leave fields unploughed?
The legacy of relatively lax naturalisation laws might well be international teams made up of odds and sods from all four corners of the globe rather than players who have come through the country’s respective youth systems. Needless to say, in an era of such intense interconnectivity between nations – and the xenophobic backlash – football shouldn’t be encouraging a goldfish bowl existence; there are bound to be more and more footballers who have genuine allegiances towards more than one country.
But the powers that be need to make sure national teams aren’t able to game the system. If they don’t, they run the risk of an egalitarian flagship becoming the same uncontrollable carnival of capitalism as the club game, the carnival which has brought about the gradual dissolution of the FA Cup.
Meanwhile, at the Legion of Doom, FIFA’s policy of allowing only the evillest nations to host the World Cup seems to have backfired somewhat – who’da thunk it? The grubby goings-on in world football’s governing body do seem to have made people more cognizant of the dangers rampant capitalism poses to the international game. The FA Cup seems to have sustained one too many kidney punches by Big Football. Barring a Tyson Fury style rise from the canvas, it’s days as a competition of any repute are numbered. The leviathan presence threatens to subsume international football too, causing another great sporting institution to fall into the hazy cash-filled abyss.