Paul Marcuccitti

Paul Marcuccitti is a passionate soccer fan from Australia who will share his views about the World Cup in this column.

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The return of a long lost friend

    I love the FA Cup. I really do. It may not be the most élite competition for clubs and it may now have tertiary importance for some English teams more concerned with the Premiership and their European adventures. But I still love it.

    The very first football match I attended while on English soil was a 3rd Round FA Cup tie. If I was passionate about this wonderful competition before that magical 90 minutes, I was an utter devotee afterwards. And it wasn't just the match, it was the whole day - the friendly drink with opposition supporters before the game; the walk back to the car afterwards as fellow fans talked about dozens of results elsewhere (Kidderminster beat Birmingham ... and, oh, try not to laugh too hard but Derby got knocked out by Oldham).

    I hate the fact that the FA Cup has lost some of its lustre; it has happened quite recently. Thankyou to that leading club (which I daren't mention) which chose not to compete in 2000. Then the Wembley legend was lost. And there have been programming changes - moving 3rd Round day to December (since rescinded) and not playing the Final on the last day of the season.

    I know I'm not alone in my adoration of the FA Cup. I happened to be in England while Manchester United (oops, I was hoping not to say the name) was in South America playing in the silly tournament that was, apparently, worth missing the FA Cup for. One night, while I was having dinner in Bury (Lancashire) with some real Man U fans (i.e. they weren't from Sussex), I attempted to rile them by saying what a disgrace it was that their club had chosen not to compete in the world's oldest domestic football competition. They didn't rise to the bait - they agreed. One replied in those unmistakeable Lancashire tones, "Ah luv the FA Cup, me."

    So what makes the FA Cup so special? It's partly the tradition and the legends. And it's partly the upsets - not a year goes past without, at least, a couple. Most importantly, the FA Cup gives us ... scream it out loud ... KNOCKOUT FOOTBALL!

And knockout football rules, OK!

    Now, I know that the best team is probably the one that shows consistency over 34-38 League matches. And I know that the Champions League is the world's premier tournament for clubs. But, though it may be prestigious and star-studded, I'm afraid to say, the Champions League is monumentally boring.

    Why? Because it has that ghastly group-group element to its format which the World Cup dispensed after the 1982 edition. And that format allows the big clubs to just plod their way through to the last eight. Manchester United lost to Deportivo La Coruña twice in the 2001-2 edition of the Champions League but when the teams met again in the quarter-finals, the previous efforts of those gallant Galicians counted for nothing. And Liverpool got through to the quarter-finals despite winning only one of its six matches in the second group stage.

    I'm not criticising the players and coaches at Manchester United or Liverpool. They didn't design the format and their priority is to advance through the competition not play swashbuckling, never-say-die football throughout. But I return to a theme I harped on in my "history of crazy formats" series - it's up to football administrators to provide a competition structure that ensures entertaining play.

    Unfortunately, the Champions League, at the moment, is a cash cow for UEFA and the powerful European clubs. So don't expect a return to the good old days of the knockout European Cup until those ratings dive. You never know - the World Cup saw the light after three "group-group" editions between 1974 and 1982. Maybe UEFA might too.

    Now why am I rabbiting on about all this? I've barely mentioned the World Cup at all and the Final is rapidly approaching. Well, this has been a very good World Cup. Not quite a great one but a very good one nonetheless. It's had upsets, a few good comebacks, some exciting finishes and a lot of fancied teams falling earlier than expected. And these things frequently happen ... in a knockout competition.

    Yes, it may be unfunky (my word of the month - thankyou during domestic/European seasons. But right now, knockout football is IN. And I'm just loving it. I haven't seen too many teams giving up in matches because another 20 remain in the season. And those teams that made a slow start ... hmmm ... where are they now?

    Sure, the World Cup finals start with a group phase (and so they should). But it's just a single group phase involving three matches per team. The last of the three matches is often, effectively, a knockout game for one or both teams involved. Teams might get away with one bad result but a second is usually fatal. Just ask France, Portugal, Argentina, etc.

    From the Round of 16 onwards, there's definitely no tomorrow for the losers. It's sudden death and results can't be contrived. Have you been enjoying it? I have - even though my favourite teams have all fallen. I was cheering on the Turks in their semi-final against Brazil (blame my bias towards Europe's second tier) and as my new heroes, Hasan Sas, Yildiray Bastürk, Ilhan Mansiz, et al, pushed forward in search of an equaliser, yours truly was jumping out of his chair and shouting at the television like a raving lunatic. Would I have been doing that if it was the third match of the first group phase in a group-group style tournament? Not a chance.

    That's why the way CONMEBOL arranges its World Cup qualifying tournament is so wrong. Brazil is the first country ever to reach the World Cup Final with 6 wins out of 6 and it could yet become the first to score a perfect 7. But if you think like I do, the World Cup didn't start on May 31. Rather, it started over two years ago and the Brazilians have since lost 6 World Cup matches. [No country has ever lost more qualifying matches in one edition and still reached the finals.] They got away with it because the 10 CONMEBOL teams played each other home and away and, with 18 matches on the schedule, the jogo was eventually going to be bonito enough for Brazil to qualify.

    Again, I don't blame the Brazilian players and coaches (there were enough of the latter!) because that's the format they were handed.

    Can you imagine if the entire World Cup was played in this way? Yes, just imagine we had the best 20 countries in the world spending a full season playing each other home and away. I can't think of anything worse (fortunately it could never happen).

    But if it did happen, the likes of France, Argentina and Italy would eventually get going and probably move towards the right end of the table. Upsets? So what. The favourites would be able to absorb them over the course of a long season.

    In many ways, the 2002 World Cup finals have followed a similar pattern to a number of FA Cup competitions of the past. A lot of fancied teams have been upset and knocked out early while a couple of underdogs have threatened to go all the way. And in the end, two heavyweights reached the Final.

    Think back to the FA Cup of 2001 - Liverpool and Arsenal (two heavyweights) played in the Final but in one of the semi-finals, Liverpool resisted a bold challenge from Wycombe Wanderers (underdogs) - a club two divisions below the Premier League. Manchester United (fancied team) had already been upset and knocked out.

    There's nothing wrong with all that. And there's nothing wrong with the knockout element of the 2002 finals and the outcomes we've seen.

    Sometimes I wonder if my longing for knockout football just makes me an old romantic who is ready to be consigned to the dustbin of football fan history. But at the moment, I'm in my element, revelling in the no-tomorrow nature of the World Cup finals. For now, I can forget that my beloved species is being threatened with extinction - even in England, its native land. And, currently, I'm not bothering to question why it hasn't been enough for UEFA to kill it off in one of its club competitions and why it has to try and destroy the knockout principle in the other as well. I'll also pause in my pursuit of philosophical questions like, why have some countries always struggled with the concept? (Take Italy as an example. The Italian Cup never seems to arouse much interest but Serie A can virtually stop the nation.)

    No, I'll just enjoy the last knockout act of our splendid World Cup tournament on Sunday and worry about the rest later.

    So it's Brazil and Germany then - the two most successful countries in World Cup history. It's not exactly the Final I was hoping for. As you've, no doubt, gathered, I would have preferred teams that are historically less successful to break through. (I, for one, was happy to see France add its name to the short list four years ago.) But the Germans and the Brazilians have a combined record of 11 wins and one draw at the finals so you can't really deny their right to meet in the decider. If their paths were relatively easy, it's the fault of the other favourites who either self-destructed (Portugal), never got going (France), couldn't create/take enough chances (Argentina), made crucial mistakes (Italy), ran out of steam (England), or couldn't adequately deal with the loss of a star player (Spain).

    Those that fell will all learn - if they didn't already know - that there is little margin for error at the World Cup. But that's one of the reasons why it's such a great tournament.

    Welcome back knockout football. It's been like the return of a long lost friend.



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