The extent to which football’s various (or, in England, criminally not various) media partners have colonized its history is a favourite hobby horse of those in the alternative football media. Here is one example (which I wrote), and another (which I didn’t). The FA Cup, though, is something of an exception to this invidious phenomenon.
Whereas league football only started in the early nineties, English clubs have been pitting themselves against each other in one-off cup contests for the best part of 150 years (this year’s final will mark 150 years since the first – but wars and things mean there won’t have been 150 finals). That’s right isn’t it? That’s what makes the FA Cup so magical.
It has real history. It is part of England’s heritage.
This is the subtext to all FA Cup broadcasts. It’s a confusing one, given that the tournament is now sponsored by an American beer (whose association was proceeded by that of an enormous insurance conglomerate), but given the neat way in which Barclays bank has become part of the privilege of top flight football (thanks Owen Coyle) the confusion is surmountable.
Every televised tie is preceded, interrupted and concluded by VTs testifying to ‘the magic of the cup’. Magic, here, has to do with white horses, Gazza, men in flat caps, muddy pitches and these various aspects exist in their purest concentration in this famous goal by Hereford United’s Ronnie Radford.
History has been transformed into ‘magic’. The ephemera of the FA Cup speaks to a sense of nostalgia which ensures that the past is always special, always innately better than the present.
This, though, is just so much more televisual alchemy. Of course, and this is an obvious point, a selection of highlights from a competition whose history spans a century and a half will make that competition look good. It would be equally possible to make it look like an uninterrupted dirge by similar means (to transform the magic into monotomy). The evident truth is that the actual fare of the FA Cup throughout its history would conform to a roughly mean level – occasional moments of magic punctuating the generally mundane and the occasionally malignant.
This is true, too, of the entire history of all football in England. If it were condensed into a video reel of unlikely but spectacular goals and shots of toothless, crying men with bits of trophy on their head and black and white stills depicting the great unwashed sucking on pipes and whirling rattles, the league could be made to look similarly magical.
But it isn’t.
That it isn’t is presented, as I said above, as a necessary consequence of the divergent histories of league and cup football in England: whereas the Cup has happened, the league simply happens.
But this isn’t true either.
Instead, the league’s lack of officially recognised magic is a consequence of the divergent identities assigned to the two types of competition by the set of shrewd (for which read duplicitous) marketeers (for which read bastards) to whom the FA answer. Because these girls and guys are literally incapable of acknowledging the existence of a thing independent of a USP, the FA Cup with Budweiser and the Barclays Premier League have to be different. Often, as in the case of Budweiser and Barclays, this is easy but football is more complex since this difference has to supercede the innate similarity of the two competitions. This is achieved, then, by an artificial insistence on the inherence of the magic of history in the former and the power of now in the latter. And this, finally, is completely artificial.
All of which, though, is not to say that there is nothing magical about the FA Cup; there is. The magic, though, is not in the immortal memories bookending its contemporary clashes (which, again, is not to diminish those moments – Ronnie Radford’s goal is cool – only to point out that their ilk are not restricted to cup competitions) but in the tournament as an historical whole. As if I were already on the road to Wimbledon’s centre court on July the 8th, this is an elite competition, rooted in Victorian times, in which anyone* can take part. The magic of the FA Cup starts every summer and lasts, potentially, until the late spring. The Real FA Cup isn’t on Youtube; it’s in Dulwich and Chertsey and on Canvey Island.
*Ok, so not exactly anyone, but the early rounds do testify to an extraordinary inclusivity which is worthy of this small appreciation.
*** This post appeared on SB Nation first.