FA Cup: Has the World's Oldest Cup Contest Finally Lost Its Magic?

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FA Cup: Has the World's Oldest Cup Contest Finally Lost Its Magic?
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As the world's oldest football knockout competition, The FA Cup has played a storied role in the history of the beautiful game.

For over a century, the FA Cup Final has been an indelible part of English national consciousness. If you weren't lucky enough to go to the game, the whole of FA Cup Final Saturday would build up to 3 p.m., where all eyes would be on Wembley.

Rival broadcasters ITV and the BBC would start their coverage earlier and earlier each year to pull in viewers. One season, coverage started at 8 a.m. on the Saturday morning and some of the hours were filled with a snooker tournament!

The final generated so much excitement that teams would always release a single during the build up: who could forget The Anfield Rap?!

The FA Cup Final has also produced some fantastic games over the years.

In 1977, Manchester Utd denied Liverpool a treble-winning season with a brilliant 2-1 victory.

In 1988, Wimbledon pulled off one of the biggest giant-killing feats of all time, also denying Liverpool a league and cup double near the height of their European pomp.

More recently in 1996, Eric Cantona's ice-cool finish was enough to separate Manchester Utd and Liverpool in a highly memorable match. (This writer realizes that Liverpool were on the losing side in all three examples, but no bias is intended!)

With the 132nd edition of the FA Cup Final approaching, however, the showpiece match of English football does not appear to be in such good health.

As Wigan prepare to face Manchester City at Wembley, there is none of the usual fanfare. Suffice to say, neither team has put a celebratory song in the charts.

The Latics find themselves in yet another Premier League relegation battle, and some may even view the match as a distraction in their quest for top-flight survival.

Manchester City, meanwhile, will view the trophy as nothing more than a distant consolation prize after their feckless attempt at retaining their Premier League title.

In years gone by, there would be no other games on the weekend of the FA Cup final. This year we have a full Premier League program, along with championship playoffs. There's even a Premier League match earlier on the same day.

Without a day dedicated to it, the final has certainly lost its sense of occasion.

Another bone of contention is that kickoff time has once again been shifted from its traditional 3 p.m. slot to 5:15 p.m. in order to maximise potential viewing figures. This move appears to have been made at the expense of the fans in attendance, who may struggle to get back home on public transportation after the match.

The struggle for TV viewing figures is indicative of the decline of the competition.

In decades gone by, every man and his dog would stop and watch the game. According to Sky, over 11 million people in the UK watched Roberto Di Matteo's early goal for Chelsea against Middlesbrough. Five years later when Chelsea met Arsenal, there were only 6.3 million viewers. Only 5.6 million watched Portsmouth face Cardiff in 2008.

The calibre of competitors in the final may have something to do with the decline in interest. In the '80s and '90s, the final was dominated by Manchester Utd, Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal.

Watching Portsmouth play a championship side seems much less glamorous in comparison.

The trend of big clubs taking the competition less seriously has created less appetising finals. In this campaign, Arsenal, Liverpool, Spurs, QPR, Aston Villa and Norwich were all eliminated by lower league competition. Unexpected defeats are all part of the excitement of the FA Cup, but too many of them certainly detract from the quality in the latter stages of the competition.

Perhaps the death knell for the competition was Manchester Utd's unprecedented decision to pull out of the competition in 2000. Instead of defending the trophy they won the previous year, they chose to focus on competing in the Club World Cup (which they were eliminated from after failing to clear the group stage).

As Wigan enter Saturday's match with their minds elsewhere and Manchester City assuming a win, it's a sad fact that this game is seen as little else but a distraction for clubs of all sizes and statures.

The cup may even have lost its shine for lower league clubs, for whom it has always been an opportunity to punch above their weight.

Many Millwall supporters, for example, viewed their incredible journey to the semifinals as a distraction from a fairly dismal campaign in the Championship, from which they could have been relegated on the final day last weekend.

In an era of packed fixture lists and high financial rewards for finishing well in the league, the FA Cup seems to have become a relic of the past. Unless the prize is made greater (a Champions League playoff place perhaps?) the decline will only continue.

The FA Cup isn't going anywhere, but sadly it's magic disappeared long ago.

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