Up for the cup

A change of attitudes in Italy could provide some useful lessons for football's oldest tournament. Matthew Barker explains

Much has been made in the press recently about falling attendances in the FA Cup, with concerned reports warning that the grand old competition is on the wane, its status increasingly devalued as an unloved irritant for clubs who prize the Premier League above all else. The temptation is to draw a parallel with 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 sports channels. (One commentator was in raptures when describing the atmosphere generated by Wealdstone supporters during their clash with Rotherham back in November.)

Of course, the Coppa Italia has long been regarded as an irrelevance by the average Italian, lacking identity and devoid of drama. In recent years, however, the Italian FA (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 big hitters generally avoiding each other until the latter stages. But the introduction in 2007 of a one-off final, played at the Stadio 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 labyrinthine early stages have been mercifully restructured. Ties that were once hidden away on pay-per-view porn channels are now shown live by state broadcaster RAI, which has given the Coppa a decent boost.

It has also, however, thrown up the occasional problem. When, last month, the FIGC announced it was moving quarter-final games to accommodate a couple of Serie A matches that had fallen foul of pre-Christmas snowstorms, Inter were incensed. In the resulting fixture reshuffle the nerazzurri were expected to play their high-profile home tie against Juventus on Thursday January 28, just 24 hours after Milan against Udinese at the Meazza.

Milan’s game had actually been moved back a week at the request of club vice-president (and former Lega chief) Adriano Galliani. Inter asked if they could play the game the night before their city rivals, but it was RAI who then apparently nixed the idea, claiming that they were unable to rearrange their TV schedules. Inter then switched their ire towards Milan and, in particular, Galliani who, it was claimed, had been allowed to move his club’s game back a week to concentrate on the crucial city derby on January 23. The two Milan clubs sniped at each other in the press for a few days before Inter president Massimo Moratti agreed to play the Juve tie on the 28th as agreed, though not before promising the matter would be bought up again at a later date.

Moratti also threatened that the club would play their primavera (Under-20) side against Juventus, but in the end TV viewers were treated to a decent cup tie, with both teams close to full strength. RAI showed all four ties live during the week, with one played each night from the Monday to the Thursday. Non-football supporting members of Italian households were doubtless infuriated but it was a stunt which helped generate plenty of further publicity, at a time when the Coppa seems to be finally capturing the popular imagination.

Fixture shenanigans aside, Italian football’s continued veneration of the FA Cup could yet provide a pointer for the much maligned competition’s future. There’s been 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 moving a further rung or two up the Premier League, 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). 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, for the biancocelesti, starved of any silverware since their previous Coppa victory in 2004, it clearly mattered.

Regular calls for the winner to be granted a Champions League spot echo similar sentiments in the England, while plenty of Italians believe abolishing the seeding system would open up the competition to FA Cup-style upsets (the larger clubs would no doubt strongly oppose such a move, though they might be amenable to the mooted idea of smaller teams playing all their ties at home). Further changes could certainly be made but it does seem that Italy is now warming to its national cup competition.

From WSC 277 March 2010