There’s no contest for the Cup Losers’ Cup
So reviled and diminished have most football cup competitions become that Uefa should launch a knockout competition to discover which is the least loved.
The Cup Losers' Cup is no more than a working title and I've yet to discuss the idea in any detail with Michel Platini, the grand fromage of Europe's governing body. But these logistical hurdles aside - and the conceptual leap required to imagine a cup competition competing for a cup - I'd like
to predict a winner.
The field is a strong one and punters should not ignore the toxicity of the Carling Cup - previously the Milk, Littlewoods, Rumbelows, Coca-Cola and Worthington Cup. There's a rumour that it was once even called the League Cup but it's now so confused by corporatism that under-fire (always under-fire) Steve Kean, manager of near-bottom-of-the-table Blackburn Rovers felt justified to drop five of his best players for a quarter-final game against Cardiff City last November. To no one's great surprise, Blackburn lost - or rather, to borrow Kean's own word, "forfeited" the game.
Nor should one ignore the FA Cup, the new Carling Cup. The BBC, via the fawning Football Focus and Radio 5 Live, continues to talk it up but the more the corporation protests - using the words "romance" and "magic" over a perpetual loop of a sepia-tinted Ronnie Radford, both arms raised in triumph - the less convinced the rest of us become. That every radio commentary starts with a variation of "And they say there's no more magic in the cup . . ." is what's known as a failure of "framing", if I correctly recall last week's essay by my colleague Mehdi Hasan (further up the front, people).
Kean dropped five for the Carling Cup but Mick McCarthy dropped twice that number for an FA Cup replay earlier this month. His Wolves team lost, of course, but more telling was that nobody seemed to mind too much.
One might even make a case for the Africa Cup of Nations (currently on Eurosport and ITV4). This is a competition despised by Premier League managers, who remember to buy high-quality African players but forget that the Africa Cup of Nations is a biannual affair that takes place in the middle of our domestic season - thus depriving clubs of key players for six weeks or more.
But the Africa Cup is disqualified on two counts. First, self-serving Prem bosses aside, it is widely celebrated. Second, as Platini pointed out during our brief discussion on the subject, it's outside his jurisdiction.
No, the most deserving winner of the Cup Losers' Cup is the Europa League, a Uefa concoction so ill-conceived that it has become a legitimate form of terrace one-upmanship. The chant "Thursday nights, Channel 5/Thursday nights, Channel 5", may be a little cryptic, but every football fan knows that the combination of weeknight and terrestrial channel means just one thing - the interminable qualifying, to play-off, to group stage, to knock-out
Europa League. Schadenfreude is a football fan's stock-in-trade, so those who follow Manchester City and Manchester United - both now out of the superior "Tuesday, Sky Sports/Wednesday night, ITV1" Champions League - will have heard the Channel 5 refrain more than once, not least from fans of clubs likely to end up competing in it next season.
To win the Europa League each May, clubs have to play up to 23 games, starting (in some cases) 11 months prior to the final. Fulham made their first appearance on 30 June. And here's the thing: most teams that enter don't even want to win it. Spurs boss Harry Redknapp spoke for his trade when he asserted that not only do "teams who get into the Europa League want to get out of it" but that it was "harder to get out of the competition than it was to get in it".
Yet - proving once again Redknapp is the only candidate to replace Fabio Capello as England manager - Spurs did get out of it, finishing third in a group boasting the might of PAOK, FC Rubin Kazan and, yes, Shamrock Rovers. Now, that's management.
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