God knows we’ve seen some nightmarish ideas over the course of the first 150 issues of WSC, but this one is in a class of its own. Of course matches will still be played in something that calls itself the FA Cup, but the Cup as we have known it is surely dead – killed by its own creators.
That is the effect of their astonishing decision to encourage Man Utd to withdraw from next season’s competition in order to take part in the “world club championship” (the quote marks should form part of its official title).
United have no cause for bleating about their fixture pile-up given the role they played in bringing about the expansion of the Champions League, but at least they had the decency to spend a couple of days pondering the FA’s suggestion before pulling out. But now the damage is done, and the FA’s unwillingness to protect the integrity of their own competition will set an obvious precedent. Other clubs will now be able to cite pressing commitments elsewhere as an excuse for opting out of domestic cup competitions – already Rangers have announced their intention to withdraw from the Scottish League Cup.
The FA’s stance is not only contemptuous of fans, but also deeply stupid. To put it in marketing terms, since that seems to be the only language they understand, the FA Cup, as a product, depends on its inclusiveness, its history and the unique flavour of its Wembley final. In recent times, that utterly distinctive combination has been sullied in half a dozen ways (sponsorship, penalty shoot-outs, celebrity draws, Cliff Richard, you name it). The FA have made it look like any other tin-pot trophy.
And for what? A World Cup bid that deserves to fail, unprepared as it is to stand or fall on the strength of England’s case for hosting the tournament.
“We believe it is important to show that we carry real weight in global football. This is what the world is waiting to see from us,” says David Davies, now comfortably established as one of the most absurd, self-regarding figures in public life. But why would the world give a damn? After all, England had not been expected to bid for 2006 in the first place after UEFA agreed, with the full knowledge of the FA, to back Germany as hosts.
From the outset the bid has become the personal obsession of individuals at the FA, angling to write themselves into football history – Davies is still only employed on an interim basis, though he acts like a dictator-for-life. The government have been active co-conspirators, with Tony Blair keenly aware that a World Cup here would provide a host of opportunities to rub shoulders with the most powerful people in international politics, like Sepp Blatter.
If the government were to sound out popular opinion on the subject of England 2006, they might get a shock. Those who recall what a pig’s ear the FA made of organising Euro 96 are not going to be filled with enthusiam at the prospect of a re-run. And the FA will be cut off at the knees if its craven kowtowing to FIFA does not have the desired effect and England lose the bidding war.
Alex Ferguson, who cut a forlorn figure at the press conference called to announce United’s withdrawl from the FA Cup, conceded that he had not yet worked out “the context of this new competition”. He needn’t bother trying because there isn’t one: the “world club championship” has no basis to exist other than as another excuse for FIFA to rake in millions from television. And of course that will only happen if the European champions agree to turn up.
In fact it seems to have skipped many people’s notice – including Martin Edwards, who has talked of United becoming “the first club champions of the world” – that there is already a world club trophy, contested every year in Tokyo between the winners of the European Cup and the Copa Libertadores. It has never mattered much to anybody, although the perenially cash-strapped South Americans take it rather more seriously than their European opponents. But while nothing can establish for certain which team is “the best in the world” that’s as close as it would be possible to get.
No one who knows anything about football could plausibly argue that champions of Oceania, Concacaf and Asia would figure among even the the top 50 teams in the world. The suggestion offered by Davies that opposition to the new competition mirrors the old insularity that kept English teams out of the early World Cups and the first European Cup, is simply ignorant nonsense.
It would have been fitting, though surprising, if United had told the FA what they could do with their shoddy plans. But if the FA itself can no longer safeguard the values that might be worth defending, it’s hardly likely that anyone else is going to do it for them.
From WSC 150 August 1999. What was happening this month