I don't like to casually throw out the word "hate," because those four little letters pack a powerful emotional punch. However, I will say this: I hate cynicism. In the words of the great Conan O'Brien, it's my least favorite quality. Now there's a difference between being cynical and being realistic, but I think that the former has crept into football more and more in recent years. To see evidence of this, you have to look no further than the oldest football competition on the planet: the FA Cup.
Now I'm an American, and I didn't start watching football (the good kind) regularly until 2006. But the people who have followed the sport all their lives, the people who have lived and breathed football for decades... they tell me that the FA Cup used to mean something. In the 60s and 70s, the final was apparently the Super Bowl of its day, with a record 28 million viewers tuning in to see the replay between Chelsea and Leeds United in 1970. It's hard enough to wrap my mind around the fact that there used to be a possibility that the FA Cup Final could end in a draw and be replayed on another day, but the fact that over half the population of the United Kingdom watched it? Unreal.
A couple of years ago, I received a DVD of Everton's victory over Sheffield Wednesday in the 1966 FA Cup Final as a Christmas gift. I was already familiar with the details of that match: Everton fell behind 2-0 with half an hour to play, before mounting a furious comeback to win 3-2 and claim the cup for the third time in their history. And yet, I still got chills when little-known Mike Trebilcock scored an unlikely brace to bring the match level, and again when Derek Temple won it for the Toffees minutes later. Watching that grainy 1960s-color footage, you could tell that the FA Cup Final was an event. The crowd was incredible. Paul McCartney and John Lennon were there. It seemed like, for lack of a better term, a historical moment.
Now we're in 2013, and the naysayers say it's not like that anymore. And they're right, it isn't. But why should that matter? I still love the FA Cup for what it is, which is one of the most unique and entertaining knockout tournaments you'll find anywhere.
Here in the United States, we've been brought up on "bracketology." In a single-elimination tournament, we're taught that the top seed plays the bottom seed in the first round, the second seed plays the second from bottom seed, and so on. Barring upsets, this ensures that the best teams will meet in the later rounds, at the expense of the underdogs. To Americans, the concept of a "draw" to decide who plays who is foreign. But personally, I love the randomness of the draw and not knowing who you might play next, even if it's not a 100% "fair" process. It adds another layer to the tournament that playoff formats in other sports can't replicate.
It might be cliche, but the romance of the FA Cup really is the possibility that a little team from Nowhereshire might slay a giant and maybe even make it all the way to the national stage at Wembley Stadium. Even for bigger teams like Everton that don't have the finances to realistically compete for the Premier League title, the FA Cup is a chance at glory. You can tell by David Moyes's recent quotes that winning this competition continues to motivate him and his players. Whatever people say, the FA Cup still means something.
Then there are all of the other little nuances of the FA Cup that I find endearing: the possibility of a replay (another foreign idea to Americans), the thrill of getting to watch the team you follow week in and week out play on the famous pitch at Wembley, the unique way the competition is integrated into the season, and the nervous energy that only a knockout tournament can provide. I love the Premier League and the way the season unfolds like a soap opera with its many twists and turns, but there's still nothing in sports quite like a game in which its truly do or die, win or go home.
Everton plays Wigan Athletic on Saturday at Goodison Park, and as neither team is a "big club" by the world's definition most people probably won't be especially interested in the outcome. But there are two fan bases who will be, including the blue half of Merseyside and all of their fellow supporters around the world, because a trip to Wembley is at stake. I know I'll be watching.