Many a TV pundit will state, often appearing very misty eyed at the time, that the FA Cup is the greatest club Cup competition in the world. But is it, is it really? How can it be better than, say, the Champions League, a competition that purports to be contested for by the greatest footballers on the planet, playing for the most famous teams in the world, and watched by millions all around the globe? Well, it will come as no surprise to you that I’m with those rose tinted glasses wearing pundits on this one. The FA Cup is the greatest Cup competition of them all. And here’s why.
First, let me make some straightforward factual comparisons. The Champions League is now 60 years old, first being contested for as the European Cup by 16 mainland European teams in the 1955/56 season, the final culminating in the first of 10 record wins for Real Madrid. Sixty years is a long time, longer than I’ve even been alive, but by 1955 the FA Cup was already 84 years old! In those 84 years there had already been 74 finals with 35 different winners and over 2,400 clubs had taken part. The European Cup was just a metaphorical great grandchild of the FA Cup!
But, of course, that’s all in the past. What about today? How can the FA Cup be compared favourably with the Champions League? Well, let’s look at the number of teams that participate in each competition each year. The misnamed Champions League has just 78 clubs vying for that trophy each season. The FA Cup sees almost 10 times as many participants, 736 in all. Even if you allow for the fact that clubs have to qualify for the Champions League through their own domestic leagues the previous season (effectively the equivalent of qualifying rounds for the competition), there are still only 706 clubs that could qualify for the Champions League all across Europe. That’s still 30 short of the restricted number of entries into the FA Cup.
Ah, but the quality of the teams in the Champions League is far higher than in the FA Cup and therefore that makes it better. That quality differential may very well be true, but another reason why the oldest cup competition in the world is better than its more glamorous descendent is because it is a straightforward knockout competition. If you lose a match in the FA Cup then you are out. There are no second chances. Presuming the winner of the Champions League comes from a team exempt until the group stages, then that winner could in theory lose six matches and still be crowned Champions of Europe. Six defeats! You lose six matches in the FA Cup, that’s six years without winning the FA Cup.
Finally, and most critically in my opinion, the reason why the FA Cup is the best cup competition in the world is because it’s all about the clubs and, in particular, everyone involved in the club. The Champions League seems to me to be all about individual glory, with focus on the star players being paramount in the eyes of the TV media and press, but the FA Cup is about those who help run the clubs, not just the players getting the result on the day, but the management team, the back-room staff, the gate-people, the stewards, the volunteers, the fans. Go to any FA Cup match in August and you can’t fail to be impressed by the passion emanating from all quarters, not passion borne out of potential FA Cup glory, but passion based on pride in the club and the fact the community it represents is taking part in the greatest Cup competition in the world.
There may be, albeit modest, monetary reward for winning an FA Cup match at this stage, but that’s not why the club, its players, staff and fans are delighted. No, a win means they have another opportunity to be involved in this famous tournament, another opportunity to create future anecdotes, a further chance to be mentioned in the same breath as the illustrious winners. Ask any past player of any club who participated in the early rounds of the FA Cup if he actually played in the competition and his face will light up as he tells you all about it. The Champions League may well be all about the worldwide glory, but the FA Cup is all about a sense of collective pride, and that is what makes it the best Cup competition in the world.
Addendum. This blog has been translated into Chinese and published on many sites in China e.g.