European fever: How Europe colonised English football
Welcome to Tuesday Team Talk. Every week, the H+K Sports team will give a unique perspective on the week’s football action and the stories making the headlines across the beautiful game.
We need to talk about Europe. David Cameron may have set the political world in a tizzy by announcing a date for the ‘in/out’ vote for the UK in the EU, but Premier League clubs have already made their intentions very clear. They want in. European football, getting in and then winning trophies, has become an obsession for teams in the Premier League, to the extent that English competitions have started to feel like a stepping stone to Europe first and foremost. Call me a Euro sceptic, but there’s more to life than just the Champions League, and this weekend showed just how dangerous this Europe first attitude could be. In what should have been a great weekend of FA Cup action, it felt like the conversation was dominated by European football.
The glamour tie of the weekend should have been found on Sunday, when Chelsea welcomed Man City to Stamford Bridge. With Chelsea in great form it had the potential for a classic tie. City had other ideas though. Jilted by the fact that they were forced to play the Sunday before a Champions League tie away in Kiev, City elected to play a youth side, and in turn were hammered 5-1. Pellegrini left no doubt in his post-match comments that this was down to a focus on Europe, and on the perceived unfairness of the fixture scheduling, claiming that the tie was not “a real game”. The City boss has been rightly criticised for the disrespect shown to the FA Cup, but it’s clear his priorities lie elsewhere.
City were by no means the only culprit either. Arsenal played a stronger team against Hull, but they clearly had at least half an eye on their midweek fixture against Barcelona, with no Mesut Ozil in the squad and Olivier Giroud and Alexis Sanchez restricted to contributions from the bench. Mauricio Pochettino’s Tottenham have been committed to fighting on all fronts this season, and their team selection certainly suggested a respect for the importance of the FA Cup. However, their defeat at home to Crystal Palace suggests that the players probably had their eyes on another prize, namely a top four finish (with it a lucrative Champions League spot) and a strong performance in the Europa League, which Tottenham feel they have a strong chance of winning.
On the other side of the coin, Manchester United, and the aforementioned Chelsea, who have in the past been guilty of devaluing the competition themselves, are treating it with renewed rigour. Struggling in the league, both now see the FA Cup as a potential source of silverware, and a route into Europe via the Europa League.
The weekend really was dominated by talk of Europe. There was even a suggestion that the FA Cup should be intentionally elevated by offering a Champions League place for the winner. You can certainly see the logic; it would definitely make all of the big clubs commit to the competition. But I’m not sure it solves the problem. Aside from a multitude of other consequences, why should the FA Cup just be a stepping stone to Europe? Why can’t we just celebrate it’s brilliance in its own right?
Despite this European fixation dominating conversation, there were great moments this weekend that show just why the FA Cup needs saving. Dimitri Payet getting the stage to show off his brilliance once again, as he dismantled Blackburn. West Ham’s brief foray into Europe this season, when they essentially resigned from the Europa league to focus on English competitions, long forgotten. Watford, Crystal Palace and Reading each fought their way through to the quarter final stage, each feeling that this could be their year to do something special.
The reasoning behind this new focus on Europe is, like most things in modern football, all about money. The Champions League offers a huge pay day and a chance to grow a football club’s brand on a global scale. And don’t get me wrong, the Champions League is great. Seeing the best in the world compete is hugely appealing. But let's not lose sight of the great competitions we have at home. Because if we do, we may just find the FA Cup as we know it gets lost altogether.