The FA Cup is the oldest soccer competition in the world. The tournament, which has been played annually since 1871, is contested by soccer clubs from Britain’s top divisions in a knockout format. The winner gets a chance to lift the iconic trophy at London’s famous Wembley Stadium. At first glance, this would seem a competition worth winning.
In recent years, however, the FA Cup has lost its luster. The top teams in England compete in several other leagues as well during the season, including the Premier League, League Cup and possibly the Champions League or the Europa League. The FA Cup has taken a backseat in importance levels to many top managers. This has led to these managers not playing their best stars in FA Cup games and a corresponding decline of interest among fans. What can be done to reverse this disappointing trend?
Primarily, it is important to analyze managers’ reasons for prioritizing other competitions. First, the fans prefer the week-in, week-out excitement of the Premier League. Every month or so, an FA Cup game pops up on the schedule, and it can seem like a distraction to the regular league campaign for the team and the fans. Second, the fiscal benefits are significantly higher for succeeding in the Premier League or in European competitions. Thus, the third reason is the club’s board members (the people who have power over the manager) encourage the manager to prioritize the Premier League. Pressure from fans and club boards have shifted interest away from the FA Cup.
The loss of managerial interest has decreased the quality of FA Cup games. In the last ten years or so, managers have begun to use the FA Cup as a means to test younger players. While some would deride this, in my opinion it benefits the game for managers to use the FA Cup to test out a few youngsters. It allows them to find their feet against possibly lower-league opposition, before entering the all-out battle that is the Premier League. However, it can be problematic when it goes too far.
Two weekends ago, Manchester City faced Chelsea in an FA Cup tie. The manager of City, Manuel Pellegrini, was faced with a number of injuries to key players and had many upcoming games in other competitions slated for the near future. He thus named a starting lineup which had four players who had never played one minute of senior action for the club. Two more had never played a minute before this season, leaving just five players who could be considered squad regulars. Furthermore, Pellegrini’s two substitutes in that game had never started a game for the club either. His team was embarrassed, 5-1, by a Chelsea team made up of most of their best players. Throwing so many youngsters into a big game at the same time does not benefit the youth, the team or the fans. When managers pick weakened lineups for the competition, it decreases its popularity and attractiveness to fans.
Many figures in and around British soccer have suggested ways to improve the competition. Some have called for fewer games in the Premier League schedule, theorizing that more rest for players will allow coaches to play their best talent in all competitions. Others wish to award more money to the winning team to encourage clubs to play their best talent in the FA Cup. Perhaps this suggestion explains the FA Cup’s new title sponsorship with Emirates Airlines; technically, I should be calling it the “Emirates FA Cup” every time I reference it (sponsorships are terrible when the company name is longer than the name of the sponsoree, but I digress). Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger has a different suggestion, however: change nothing. He claims that the tournament remains historic and attractive to managers, and the practice of playing youngsters in early rounds does not hinder the competitiveness of the FA Cup.
Personally, it is unclear which of these changes could benefit the FA Cup the most. It would be positive to see the British Football Association (the FA) attempt one of these changes to see if it has a positive impact. What is certain is the downward trend in importance of the FA Cup is concerning for the game and for fans. While the oldest football competition faces no existential threat, it is losing relevance to players, managers and fans, a slide that needs to be arrested.