THE RECENT decision by Liverpool’s Jürgen Klopp to field a development squad in the FA Cup for the club’s replay with Shrewsbury Town has, quite rightly, not been well received. Klopp devalued the competition by going AWOL and tarnished his image with the game’s followers. It’s a pity as Klopp has been universally popular since arriving in England, but his attitude is consistent with how some see the competition today – an inconvenience.
Teams have been fielding weakened teams for some years, largely because they can get away with it and still win their cup tie. In Klopp’s case, it is clear that Liverpool’s priority this season is to win the Premier League, something they have almost achieved. There’s no denying that Liverpool will, when the crown eventually gets placed on their heads, deserve their prize, but there’s a little arrogance in the way Klopp has handled the FA Cup.
The popular view in the past was that only in England did the domestic cup competition get treated so seriously. The facts don’t necessarily support that misconception. The fact is, the reason the British newspapers would beat on about second-rate German, Italian and Spanish FA Cups not being a priority was based on media coverage in their own countries. In the UK, we could bleat on about the fact the FA Cup was “the greatest cup competition in the world” and we would enjoy extraordinary feats such as “giant killing”. We interpreted a competition with 500-odd teams in as representing the strength of the format rather than the fact all bar 25 teams had next to no chance of winning it.
In this age of rediscovered xenophobia, some people claim the decline of the FA Cup is down to foreign coaches not taking “cups seriously”. Since 1996-97, there have been 20 occasions where an overseas coach has led his team to glory. The last Brit manager to win the FA Cup was Harry Redknapp in 2008. The competition has been treated with such “disdain” that Arséne Wenger, José Mourinho, Rafa Benitez, Antonio Conte, Carlo Ancelotti and Pep Guardiola have all won it. The one manager who has actually treated it with disdain is Klopp, who has yet to win the grand old trophy.
Managers always consider that league success is the true measure of their ability, and that is understandable. In Klopp’s case, half the Mersey nation’s hopes rest on his shoulders. That first league title since 1990 is drawing near but he was wrong and misunderestimated the currency of the competition. We like Klopp, but his attitude to the FA Cup has been disrespectful.
It is also wrong to assume foreigners lack an understanding of the value of the FA Cup and its place in English football’s rich heritage. The cup final was watched all over the world, the folklore of football is not actually built on leagues and league games, it is based on the one-off occasions that cut-throat football creates – hence, people remember Arsenal’s fabled 1989 league title win not because of their consistency, but because of the last-ditch victory at Anfield. Manchester City’s last two Premier titles, despite the records, the points and the goals, are overshadowed by the 2012 triumph clinched in the dying seconds.
Other countries have their grand finales, too. German football looks to the 1973 DFB Final when Günter Nezter fired home a winner for Gladbach against Köln. If you travel back to the 1970s when the FA Cup was at its cultural peak, Barca and Real won five Spanish cups between them, Italy’s big three won five Coppa Italias and the DFB Pokal was won by Bayern, Schalke, Frankfurt and Köln as well as Gladbach. In other words, the big clubs took it very seriously.
As for England, there were nine different winners in the 1970s, including relative underdogs Sunderland, West Ham, Sunderland, Southampton and Ipswich. You could argue that the FA Cup had weaker winners than the other main leagues, although some might counter that with the claim that England’s FA Cup underlined the strength-in-depth of the 92-club structure.
Liverpool’s decision hit at the heart of that very belief and implied the FA Cup is not all that important any more to them. Shrewsbury lost out on TV money as a result while Liverpool gave themselves breathing space for their own crusade. The Football Association should issue a timely reminder that the competition has been going longer than Liverpool and that the club’s FA Cup history precedes the arrival of Jürgen Klopp. A one-season ban may be an appropriate response. Not happy, big fellow? It’s only the FA Cup – you should worry.