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Nov 5, 2008

Sending the Cup down to Rio

As Football League clubs take to the field this weekend there will be much talk of the magic of the FA Cup, dreams of Wembley Stadium and the oldest club competition in the world. Those clichés may roll off the tongue but there is also a creeping emotion of fading grandeur. The FA Cup is not as sweet to drink from as it once was.

The reasons for this are myriad. The Premier League sweeps all before it and the Champions League adds a far more hyped competitor. And Portsmouth's win in last season's final broke up a 12-year dominance by the 'big four', where these elite clubs have often had to settle for the FA Cup as consolation for missing out on the league.

To place one incident as being the moment when the FA Cup lost its sheen would seem trite. Yet the moment the FA decided to trade in its crown jewel to chase another dream must surely rank high if one were to compose a list of the moments when the Cup stopped running over.

Saturday November 8, when 54 teams take to the field in search of glory, marks the anniversary of the Football Association's rubberstamping of the betrayal of the competition that made its name around the world.

This was the day when it was announced that the Third Round draw, when clubs from the top two division enter the competition, was to include 63 teams, the 64th going to a team beaten in the Second Round but now pulled out of the hat to become a 'lucky loser' to replace the withdrawn Manchester United. This announcement added finality to a long and sorry saga.

In allowing, and indeed urging, then-holders United to not defend the trophy, the FA cheapened the 1999-2000 tournament to a level that it has struggled to recover from ever since.

Then, like now, the FA wanted to stage the World Cup. "England 2006" was a doomed campaign, though the ruling body believed it had a chance to usurp Germany as the choice to host. As proven by history, it never had that chance. Hopes were dashed before they had even started by the breaking of a 'gentleman's agreement' with Germany's DfB, the eventual victors.

Manchester United were then basking in the afterglow of their 'Treble' of 1998-9 and had been invited to the inaugural FIFA Club World Championship in Brazil. United were already signed up to the old-style play-off between the champions of South America and Europe - once known as the Club World Cup, but now re-branded as the Toyota Cup and played in Japan making this FIFA competition, played between continental champions and the title-winners of Brazil seem spurious.

In the eyes of the men running the "England 2006" bid, Sports Minister Tony Banks, administrator Alec McGivan, FA Chairman Geoff Thompson and David Davies, Acting Chief Executive, sending United to Brazil could win FIFA's favour. In supporting FIFA's fledgling competition, England could steal a march on the Germans, especially as United had beaten the champions of Germany in the Champions League Final to become eligible. Should United withdraw then Bayern Munich could be invited in their stead.

The FA urged United to compete in the tournament, set to be staged from January 5 2000, a date clashing with the Fourth Round of the FA Cup. In an another outbreak of folly, the FA had decided to ease the calendar by abandoning tradition and playing the Third Round on the weekend of December 11 and 12; this was to prove another own-goal and never tried again after a series of low attendances.

Should United qualify for the 4th Round and be in Brazil then their schedule would have been near impossible. United appealed to the FA for help. Over the summer, chairman Martin Edwards asked if United could be allowed into the competition at a later date, which the FA denied. Instead, in its hunt to appease FIFA and United, the FA offered the holders the opportunity to sit out that season's competition. United, with the weight of government and FA on its shoulders, agreed.

The late Tony Banks showed the Labour government's support for the withdrawal when he said: "It is my estimation that a failure by Manchester United to go to the new competition in Brazil - particularly if they were replaced by Bayern Munich - would do irreparable damage to our 2006 campaign. These are extraordinary circumstances and it is an extraordinary decision to allow them to be exempt from next year's FA Cup. But it is for one season and I do hope Manchester United supporters will realise the significance of what they and Manchester United are being asked to do."

Edwards, after United accepted the offer in June, described it is a "a no-win situation", one for which United were "going to get criticised, whatever we do". Edwards was correct, a deluge of ire descended on United, not least from the Daily Mirror, who mounted a concerted campaign, and Kate Hoey after she replaced Banks as Sports Minister in a cabinet reshuffle in July. Once the decision had been made and the outcry began, United's hierarchy became wracked with in-fighting. They even considered playing a youth team in the Fourth Round while Sir Bobby Charlton broke ranks to say that United should be playing in the competition.

David Davies, in his recent autobiography said that "United were completely torn, agonising over the decision. Right from the start Fergie (Sir Alex Ferguson) was shocked about even the thought of forsaking the Cup for a season." Fans mounted a campaign to reinstate the club into the Cup. It fell on deaf ears.

Davis admitted his own feelings of regret over the whole farrago, saying: "I did feel I was betraying the FA Cup by giving United the option of withdrawal. Even though I'd spent my life besotted with the Cup, I couldn't see any other way out. Even now, nobody has presented a way out we didn't consider."

After months of claim and counterclaim, the withdrawal stood, as confirmed by the announcement of 63 teams plus the 'lucky loser' on November 8.

United bore the brunt of criticism for some time to come. When they made an early exit from the FIFA jamboree in Rio, beaten heavily by teams from Mexico and Brazil, the brickbats were flying. A year on, restored to the competition, they were much lampooned for their premature FA Cup exit at the hands of West Ham. The accusation that their arrogance in withdrawing as holders had tarnished the Cup lingered for seasons.

As for the progress of the competition itself, the 1999-2000 FA Cup tournament will never be remembered as vintage. After the United farrago and the folly of an early Third Round, the dealmakers of Lancaster Gate were rewarded with a final they perhaps deserved; Chelsea's late win over Aston Villa, the last final at the old Wembley, was the latest and perhaps worst of a series of execrable finals.

The team who took the place of United were Darlington, who 'qualified' by virtue of being beaten 3-1 at Gillingham. They immediately perished at the hands of Villa.

England did not get to host the 2006 World Cup and 2018 is the next time the FA have a chance of hosting. Meanwhile, the FIFA Club World Championship of 2000 was a flop and was only revived in 2005, with a much pared-down format. United would eventually move on from the saga, though relations with the FA were to be soured by the club feeling it had been hung out to dry.

The FA eventually moved on themselves, with all leading personnel involved in the campaign for "England 2006" no longer part of the organisation. Few had benefited from the FA's gamble. Least of all the Cup itself.

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