By Rory Smith
Villa Park had seemed to shake when the goal went in, three minutes into injury time, fans leaping into one another’s arms, Aston Villa’s staff members running, in the daze that comes of delirium, up and down the touchline. The final whistle blew a moment later. The stands emptied, fans streaming onto the field, swarming their heroes, hoisting them onto their shoulders, clamoring for their jerseys.
In that moment, late on Tuesday night, it would have been difficult to convince anyone at all that the Carabao Cup — the lesser of England’s two domestic cup competitions — does not matter, that this is a tournament so unloved that the coach who has won it the past two years, and who may well win the cup again this year, would not be aggrieved if it were abolished.
That argument would have felt like willful, sneering, bourgeois contrarianism. How much it meant to Villa, one of the country’s grand old teams, that it had reached a cup final, that it would have a trip to Wembley, was self-evident. There could be only one conclusion: The Carabao Cup does matter, after all.
A few days before, we had been offered proof that the magic of the FA Cup is alive and well, too: Shrewsbury Town, of League One — quick reminder: League One is what England calls its third tier, a level of ridiculousness that is for some reason accepted — had come from two goals down to hold Liverpool, runaway leader of the Premier League, champion of Europe and the world, to a draw.
So much, went the argument, for those who would belittle the oldest cup competition in the world. So much for those who would talk Britain down, including Jurgen Klopp, the Liverpool manager, who said in the immediate aftermath of that game that he would send out his youth team for the replay, and that he would not be present to watch it.
England — as mentioned in this newsletter a few weeks ago — frets over its cups more than any other country. Debating the future of both tournaments has become a fixture of the season in its own right; more and more time seems to be dedicated, every January, to assessing the state of both competitions.
Almost every game is treated as some sort of thaumaturgic health check: Has this one event increased or diminished the average level of Magic of the Cup? Shrewsbury holding Liverpool? Magic. A pitch invasion after a Carabao Cup semifinal? Magic. Klopp staying away from a reply? Not Magic. Swaths of empty seats on third-round weekend? Oh, no, not Magic at all.
It is an odd sort of debate, given that everyone knows the cups no longer possess the same prestige they once did (when, as previously discussed, the FA Cup was the only live soccer on broadcast television, giving it an outsize importance in the public consciousness).
It is often the elite — probably rightly — that are blamed for instigating that decline, though it is telling that most coaches, regardless of their team’s situation, tend to use these games as an opportunity to field youth-team and fringe players.
Ascribing guilt to the greedy Premier League titans, though, tends to frame the issue in a specific way. To most, the demise of the cups is about money. The giants disdain it because it is insufficiently lucrative. The riches on offer in the Premier League blind everyone to the fact that the game is about glory.
(Klopp and Pep Guardiola seem sincere in their belief that, to them at least, the problem is more about overworking their players, but again: The elite have gobbled up all the best players, with their money, meaning other teams are too weak to compete, even in one-off games).
That, in turn, means that the solutions on offer are, mostly, financial. Perhaps increasing the prize money would help? Perhaps abolishing replays would be acceptable, but only if the lower-league teams had a greater share of gate receipts, or took home all of the television revenue, or had greater solidarity payments from the Premier League?
All of this is true, of course, but it is not the root of the issue. No, at heart, the problem with the domestic cups — across Europe — is not money, but meaning. The FA Cup does not mean anything: not to players, few of whom now would remember the competition in its heyday; not to owners, who did not invest in the sport on the off chance of a cup run; and not, most important, to fans, who have both consumed and perpetuated a dialogue for 20 years about how the Premier League is the be-all and end-all, the best league in the world, the only thing that matters. (The Carabao Cup, regardless of its sponsor, has never really mattered, if we are all honest.)
Soccer is not driven exclusively by money; price and value are not the same thing. The Champions League is worth less than the Premier League, but most would regard it as the grander prize. The World Cup’s prestige is not related to its prize money.
They matter because they mean something. The FA Cup does not matter, as much, because it is not clear what it means, not anymore. It is no longer the big day out. It does not mean a place in the Champions League. It just offers you a chance to win a competition that, people tell you, used to be a lot more important.
That is what generates that duality: of joy for Villa Park and Shrewsbury, set against empty stadiums and absent managers. It is, in part, a problem of discourse: the debate itself, the scouring of games for proof of Magic, the constant comparisons to a halcyon past — all serve to undermine the cups as they are now.
It is only, really, when we stop asking why the cups are not like they used to be, and start asking why they should be celebrated now, that perhaps they will start to mean something again.
You Cannot Win a Transfer Window …
Old Trafford stood, as one, to welcome the substitute onto the field. The sun was shining, Manchester United was cruising to victory, and now, the cherry on the cake: Radamel Falcao had stripped off his warmups and stood ready to make his debut for the club. The applause was deafening. You could see several people, in the stands, making the Wayne’s World “We’re Not Worthy” gesture (this, as it happens, is one of the most improbably persistent cultural memes of our time).
United’s fans had every reason to be excited by Falcao’s arrival, back in 2014. Before the knee injury that had threatened his involvement in that summer’s World Cup, the Colombian striker had been one of the most clinical finishers in Europe, first for Porto, then Atlético Madrid, and finally Monaco.
It did not work out, of course — the injury had robbed Falcao of something he never quite recovered — and now I think quite often about him, particularly when a transfer goes through and fans and commentators forget, once again, that no one player can ever really solve a team’s problems.
It is especially acute at Manchester United at this point. There has been such a clamor for new signings, for fresh blood, that it is no surprise that the arrival of Bruno Fernandes this week has been greeted as a triumph, a success in and of itself, by both fans and some inside the club. (“We have successfully completed a recruitment operation: Someone cast the medals.”)
It may well work out that way, of course, but Falcao is a reminder that nothing is decided yet. This is one of the great tricks of the media-generated transfer culture that has soccer so in its thrall: It fools you into thinking that the signing is the hard bit, where things are won and lost, and that the rest is just plug and play.
It isn’t, of course. We all know that. United knows that. All the club has done, really, is the easy bit. What follows is the real challenge, and what will tell us if Bruno’s signing is a good thing, a bad thing or an indifferent thing for Manchester United. The applause, the worship, should come at the end, not at the start.
… But You Can Lose One
This has not been a good month for Barcelona. It lost Luis Suárez to injury. It lost a manager. The new guy came in and promptly lost at Valencia, and with it, lost top place in La Liga to Real Madrid. Most troubling of all, in the last week of January, Barcelona seemed, just a little, to lose its mind.
In the space of seven days, no more, the richest club in the world — home of the greatest player in history — has tried to sign Rodrigo Moreno from Valencia in some sort of labyrinthine swap deal; reportedly made a $90 million offer for Everton’s Richarlíson, despite already being at the very limit of its financial capacity; contemplated an offer for Chelsea’s Brazilian workhorse, Willian; and moved to sign Villarreal forward Cédric Bakambu, only to change its mind at the last minute (according to the Spanish newspaper Marca).
It is a fool’s game, predicting the end of this incarnation of Barcelona. (I know: I have done it quite a lot in the last couple of years, occasionally on purpose.) Lionel Messi alone is, ordinarily, enough to ensure that no low lasts too long; there is such underlying quality in the team that it is easy to exaggerate rumors of its demise.
This scattergun approach to the transfer market, though — the undignified, ill-conceived search for anyone at all to play in a forward role, the willingness to add to its already unhealthily bloated salary commitments for the sake of finding cover for Suárez for a few months — is a bright red flag.
This is not a club hierarchy that has a long-term vision. This is not a team thinking its way through problems. There is a reckoning coming for Barcelona, without major changes, way above the post of manager. Messi may be able to stave it off for a while, but even he will not protect Barcelona indefinitely.
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