The cure for the common cups
Domestic cup competitions have become ugly stepsisters to most Euro leagues
FA Cup, Copa del Rey, Coppa Italia, etc., seen as nuisances by most managers
One solution to regain prestige may be to set aside an entire month for cup play
When even the FA Cup is drawing criticism, you know domestic cup competitions are in trouble.
Wolves -- not wanting to mess with a push for promotion to the English Premier League -- played a side packed with reserves against Middlesbrough last week. Tottenham boss Harry Redknapp looked relieved after getting knocked out by Manchester United -- more time to focus on league matches. Sunderland boss Ricky Sbragia came right out and said the replay against Blackburn would help get "a few suspensions out of the way."
And, of course, Sir Alex Ferguson hinted that maybe a little-known loophole in the regulations (the possibility -- provided both clubs agree -- of settling an FA Cup draw the same day, without going to a replay) might be worth pursuing.
Whatever sense there may be that the FA Cup is losing its glamour, the situation is, of course, far worse elsewhere. In most countries, it's a nuisance; in some -- like Italy -- it's a veritable embarrassment, with games played at odd hours in midweek by shadow sides stuffed with youngsters and reserves.
It rather makes you wonder whether it isn't time to do something about it. Domestic cups have glorious histories, of course, and in some countries, like England, they often rivaled league play in terms of importance. But the growth of national leagues (and the boom in revenue linked to them) and European competition have turned them into ugly stepsisters.
Maybe it's time for a radical re-think. Maybe it's time to breathe new life into competitions which risk dying a slow and sad death.
What if they got their own stage? What if, say, January was reserved exclusively for domestic cups? Many nations that operate on an August-to-May schedule already have a winter break -- why not extend it a few weeks and hand the spotlight over to the domestic cup instead?
Take Spain as an example. The top Liga sides enter the Copa del Rey competition in the round of 32, which was played in a home-and-away format back in November. Spain's winter break ended on the weekend of Jan. 3-4. If you delayed the return until the weekend of Jan. 31-Feb. 1, you could pack four rounds in there and, by the end of the month, you would have your two finalists. You could then play the final pretty much whenever you like, in keeping with tradition.
Or imagine England. Premier League clubs enter the competition in the third round, traditionally held in the first weekend in January. At this point, you have 64 clubs. Again, you can play four rounds (using the old familiar match-plus-replay format) and end up with four semifinalists by the beginning of February. You then go and schedule the semifinals -- as per tradition -- in a neutral venue in the spring and then the final at Wembley at the tail end of the season, thereby preserving a fair dose of tradition.
Of course, doing this would mean rescheduling four league fixtures. Where do you put them? Well, for a start, I would reduce the top flight in England and Spain (and just about everywhere else) to 18 clubs from the current 20 so there wouldn't be a problem. And I think there are compelling reasons to do so (an argument for a future column, perhaps), although I'm realistic that right now, that's purely pie-in-the-sky with far too many economic interests at work.
Never fear. You simply reschedule them in midweek dates throughout the calendar, those very same midweek dates that would be freed up by moving the entire cup to January.
The downside to all this? Well, it would require a bit more flexibility in scheduling (though the overall number of games would remain the same). Some fans would have to travel to more midweek league games, which would be a hassle (though they would get to enjoy more cup games on weekends).
If you got knocked out straight away, it would mean you'd have nothing to do for the rest of the month. But that's not necessarily a bad thing. You could use it for some warm-weather training, you could schedule some friendlies, you could use the time off to rest and recuperate (which is something managers bleat on about ceaselessly).
And if you did make it all the way through to the end of the month, sure, you wouldn't get time off (not that clubs in England get time off anyway). But reaching the cup final would surely make up for it. Especially if having it all in one go in January would mean greater attention from media, sponsors and supporters (which it almost certainly would). It would be far easier to market the cup in those conditions and managers would be far less concerned about injuries and resting players.
It's just an idea, not a perfect solution. But it beats scrapping the darn thing altogether. And it would certainly help preserve most of the traditions of the domestic cups. At the very least, isn't it worth talking about?