Tuesday, September 26, 2023

It’s A Knockout

In the Gregorian regularity of the English football fixture list, cup football begins to take hold of the schedule in January. The FA Cup 3rd round acts like a bookmark for the season, neatly accentuating its halfway point. The league cup semi-finals offer up that rare beast of two legged ties between domestic rivals. The FA Cup 3rd round has, historically, represented a universal beacon of hope and projection for football fans.

For the minnows, the chance of an epoch making upset, or for progression to be rewarded with the sought after glamour tie. For clubs in the top division, a chance to dream of silverware. The reasons why the cup has lost its lustre in recent years are numerous and well documented. Financially, it is worth far more to a club to qualify for the Champions League / not to be relegated senseless from the Premier League’s swelling money trough.

Even Championship sides are fielding the stiffs in the FA Cup now, regarding it as an unwelcome distraction. The influx of cash into the Premier League and Champions League have made existing the new winning. So it’s not difficult to see why the domestic cups have become fusty old relics, quietly gathering dust in a corner of our collective imaginations. Like Granddad’s old antique piano, there isn’t much room for it anymore in truth, but it’s retained out of dutiful sentiment.

In the case of the FA Cup, the football association have been complicit in the trophy’s fall from prominence, creating a mutually assured destruction. Instead of letting the competition grow old gracefully and remain some of the curious attraction that antiques often attain, it has been smeared in lipstick and pushed onto a catwalk like an awkward toddler at a beauty pageant. Its “romance” is marketed so relentlessly that it has become a form of badgering. Consequently, the message has become hyper real and lost in saturation.

Everybody knows that its Premier League and Champions League cousins are ruthlessly capitalistic. They’re breakaway leagues specifically designed for the purpose of revenue expansion. The rechristening of the FA Cup with a corporate forename and the strange insistence that Wembley treat the final like a mutant hybrid of Party in the Park and an evening at WWE just seem kind of offensive. The FA has sent its tournament to compete commercially with the firepower of the Premier League and the Champions League armed only with a musket.

However, I think there are other reasons that the cup has lost its charm. I think supporters just don’t have time for it any longer, in a very literal sense. The proliferation of live football available means that cup weekend is just another weekend, especially given the glut of games broadcast live during the congested Christmas period. Sam Allardyce hinted this week that the Premier League’s decision to have a full midweek fixture list immediately following the 3rd round bore the neon paw prints of Sky Sports.

Sky no longer covers the cup and, as such, 3rd round weekend represents an unwelcome valley in their viewing figures graph. A full round of fixtures immediately after cup weekend helps them to amend that brief shortfall immediately. It also ensures that the Premier League will continue to dominate the discussion in the days ahead. Whether or not the PL’s machinations are this cynical is open to conjecture, but it is hardly difficult to imagine. The midweek wink of the #BPL encapsulates a further issue that the domestic cups are struggling to overcome.

Cup football is rapidly losing its appeal. Once upon a time, a knockout tournament and the drama it promises were seen as a welcome break from the humdrum of the league season. A pleasing sorbet to swill the taste of meat and potatoes from the pallet. But the Premier League has become such an all-consuming, 24 hour circus that the desire for drama is now well catered for. The space that the cup used to occupy has been filled by Sky Sports News, the rolling soap opera and the preoccupation with players’ private lives (right down to the cars that they drive on a given day).

Unhelpfully for the F.A. Cup and the league cup semi-finals, the transfer window reopens in January. The window, more than anything else, has been repackaged to ration fans with the steady diet of drama and suspense (however contrived) that they crave, further banishing the domestic cups to the margins of relevancy. Social media activity should not be seen as the ultimate emotional barometer, but it provides an interesting insight into the psyche of a relatively young seam of society.

I would be very interested to see figures (were such a thing quantifiable) comparing the frisson the signings of Mesut Özil and Alexis Sánchez created on social media platforms to Arsenal’s F.A. Cup wins of 2014 and 2015. Effectively, the cerebral soap opera of “the football industry” has scratched the itch of cup football. Arsenal’s 9 year trophy drought from 2005-2014 was midwife to much anxiety and provided the backbone the majority of the press surrounding the club in that period.

Yet the F.A. Cup wins of 2014 and 2015 did little to alleviate the overall angst of the Arsenal fan base, as I suggested in the aftermath of the 2014 cup win. The transfer market continues to dominate the pugnacious discourse around Arsenal, along with other top clubs, effectively becoming a vestige of success in its own right. It is certainly viewed now as a kind of arms race, where he who spends, wins. It’s a competition covered and promoted exhaustively that manufactures theatre on a daily basis.

So is it any wonder that the occasional cup tie carat no longer cuts it in the excitement stakes? Finding the occasional jazz mag in a bush no longer holds the same appeal in the age of free to stream internet pornography. As Jonathan Liew astutely observes in this piece, the transfer window has become football’s answer to ‘fan fiction’, it offers permanent hope because its focus is constantly trained on a better future. In this respect, transfers have seamlessly wrestled away one of the cup’s key emotional territories. Hope.

I would argue that the value of the cup upset has also diminished, which was once an important piece of bait central to its allure. Knockout matches don’t provide the same narrative thread as the Premier League and even the Champions League, with its group stage format and repeat cast. The drama of elimination is more intense, but also more short lived. Rooting for the minnow is also increasingly less appealing in the modern landscape of fandom. The likes of Barca and Bayern Munich have become Harlem Globetrotter figures in the global game.

Rippled Adonis’s swatting opponents aside with ease. They win games by big margins very often and their respective popularity has never been higher as a result. People enjoy watching teams of concentrated quality steamroller weaker opponents in much the same way that baying crowds once quite enjoyed watching a man fight a lion. Football fans, I think, are no longer predisposed to seeing David defeat Goliath- much in the same way that Ancient Romans did not pack arenas to watch a man gamely defeat a lion.

It’s true that the Premier League’s newfound unpredictability has reacquainted us with the concept of the upset. However, that in itself reveals just how pronounced inter-league inequalities have become in the modern game. In any case, I would argue that the unpredictability of the league this season slakes the thirst for narrative threads more than it reignites the love of the upset. It’s spawned many a thinkpiece questioning whether burgeoning equality in the top flight reflects badly on the division, as a sign of weakness amongst the leviathans. The mindset of the football fan has evolved in a manner that increasingly renders cup football redundant as a cultural reference point.

Follow me on Twitter @Stillberto

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