12 January ~ The press coverage of last weekend's FA Cup third round ties made much of falling attendances. Reports pointed to the rows of empty seats at the DW Stadium, Hillsborough and the Riverside as proof of the hallowed old competition's waning powers and its increasingly devalued status as an unloved irritant for clubs who prize the Premier League above all else. Is the FA Cup doomed then to go the way of its continental counterparts, the Coppa Italia and Copa del Rey?
Certainly in Italy the English cup still retains a strong romantic pull, with games shown live on satellite channels (one commentator was in raptures when describing the atmosphere generated by Wealdstone fans during their clash with Rotherham in November). Of course, the Coppa Italia has long been regarded as little more than an irrelevance by the average Italian football supporter, lacking identity and devoid of drama, but in recent years the FIGC has introduced changes to the format and it's notable that the FA Cup was held up as the model to emulate.
Granted, it's stretching things to describe the competition as a pure knockout affair, with clubs seeded and Serie A big hitters generally avoiding each other until the latter stages, but the introduction in 2007 of a one-off final, played at the Olimpico in Rome (as opposed to the previous two-legged home and away system) has given the competition a sharper focus and the tournament's bafflingly labyrinthian early stages have mercifully been restructured.
Italian football's veneration of the FA Cup could yet provide a pointer for the much maligned competition's future. Lazio's win against Sampdoria at the end of last season was shown live on terrestrial television, the stadium was rammed with raucous support for both sides and, especially for the biancocelesti starved of any silverware since their previous Coppa victory in 2004, it clearly mattered. It's a notable shift in attitude. While mid-ranking English sides are apparently happy to forgo the fun and frolics of a decent cup run to pin all their hopes on a further rung or two up the Premier League ladder, Italian clubs of a similar standing are now much more inclined to regard the Coppa as their best shot at glory (plus they get to wear a dinky target-style insignia on their shirts the following season).
Regular calls for the winner to be granted a Champions League spot echo similar sentiments in the English press, while plenty of Italians believe abolishing the seeding system would open up the competition to FA Cup-style upsets. Clearly further changes could be made to the Coppa's current set-up but it does seem that Italy is finally warming to its national cup competition. Matthew Barker