Paul Marcuccitti is a passionate
soccer fan from Australia who will share his views about the World Cup in this column.
Read earlier columns
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
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
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(since rescinded) and not playing the Final on the last day of the season.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
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 sportinglife.com)
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
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
Info on how
the World Cup was founded and about the trophy as well.
on every match in every tournament.
Interesting columns about the past, present and future of the World Cup.
with appearances in the World Cup. Detailed info on every country.
of many of the most influential players in history.
An A-Z collection
of strange and different stories in World Cup history.
A big collection
of various statistics and records.
since it was introduced in 1966.
knowledge about the WC. Three different levels. No prizes, just for fun.
lots of stuff. For instance Best Goals, Best Players and Best Matches.
of links to other soccer sites with World Cup connection.
and buttons for you to link to us if you want.
A little information
on who keeps this site available.