Format favours successful teams
16 February ~ It is the middle of February and already we know that Fiorentina and Napoli will contest the Italian cup final in Rome in May. As they only entered at the last 16 stage, they have had to get through just three rounds to make the final. The FA Cup is still incomparably superior to Coppa Italia in continuing to offer hope for unglamorous teams like Portsmouth and Wigan. Such romanticism is the last thought of those who organise the cup in Italy. The present format of the Coppa Italia is designed to ensure, as far as possible, the progress of the biggest teams.
Of the 78 clubs allowed to take part, 36 are from Lega Pro and Serie D (levels three to five), and they play during the first weekend in August in one-off matches with the higher placed team from the previous season at home, a principle that applies almost throughout the competition.
The 12 Serie A clubs who were not in the top eight the previous season join in for the third round. Among those this season were Inter, who finished ninth in 2012-13. Not even those who run Italian football could prevent that. From the fourth round, in December, all matches are shown live on state TV (RAI) so they take place at different times and on different days, but always in midweek.
Crowds are generally abysmal. TV coverage, understrength teams and the knowledge that further progress is unlikely see to that. 2,451 saw Atalanta’s fringe players beat Sassuolo’s equivalents 2-0 knowing that the "prize" was a visit to Napoli. And inevitably, though playing pretty well, Atalanta went down 3-1.
That was in January, when the top eight from the previous season’s Serie A finally make their entrance, all of them, naturally, at home. The Champions and Europa League hiatus is used to play the rest of the cup programme except the final. And so for over a month we have live cup football on terrestrial TV on Tuesday, Wednesday and sometimes Thursday evenings.
In the last 16 round there were two minor surprises. Udinese, playing at home, beat Inter 1-0, while Serie B Siena won 4-1 at Catania. They had also won at Bologna, but as both their victims are struggling in Serie A the results were hardly shocks. Udinese sprang another minor surprise in the quarter-final in beating Clarence Seedorf’s Milan 2-1 away. But beating Milan these days is not a shock. Roma were allowed to play Juventus at home and beat them 1-0 because by now the rule that the higher-placed team plays at home gives way to your number in the draw. In the other games Fiorentina beat Siena 2-1 and Napoli won 1-0 against the holders, Lazio.
So the semi-finals, over two legs, saw the teams currently second (Roma), third (Napoli) and fourth (Fiorentina) together with the interlopers Udinese (14th). RAI and their advertisers were happy because millions would follow the games, which is surely the main reason why the cup is structured as it is. Four good games resulted, with the teams playing at home in the second leg both overturning one-goal first leg deficits. Fiorentina beat Udinese 2-0 and 3-2 on aggregate, and Napoli, watched by Diego Maradona, overwhelmed Roma 3-0 and 5-3 overall. Apart from a very poor crowd at Udine, the games were quite well attended.
But it is all terribly artificial, a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. Vicenza were the last small club to win the cup, in 1997. And before them Atalanta – in 1963. There are Italian fans who like the format of the FA Cup and would be happy to see it introduced here. But those that count recoil in horror when they see Manchester United v Manchester City or Arsenal v Spurs in the third round.
Even so, they could try an experiment on these lines: 88 clubs from the lower levels play two rounds and the 22 survivors join the 42 from Serie A and Serie B in the competition proper. Then it could proceed like the FA Cup, perhaps without replays but with a new draw after each round. It might revive interest in Coppa Italia, but has anyone at the top got the imagination to try it? Richard Mason