My solution to the periodic handwringing about how to make the FA Cup more popular again, and as a bonus, to reform the UEFA Cup as well.
It’s simple: make the UEFA Cup an extension of the FA Cup. The genius of the FA Cup is that the format maximises the chance of shock results. No group stage, no seeding, no ties played over two legs with the away goals rule: just straight knockout competition, winner takes all. It has a similar conceptual purity to the league; in the league, every team plays every other team home and away and you tally up the points. In the FA Cup, you just put all the names into a hat to decide who plays who, and the winner gets to stay in the competition. And whereas the league is set up to decide which is the best team in the country in the fairest, most objective way possible, the FA Cup is just the opposite: it maximises the impact of luck. And that’s a good thing. It provides a counterpoint to the league.
Now there are practical reasons why we can’t have a proper European league running in parallel to the domestic leagues, but the Champion’s League does its best to provide something similar: with a seeded group stage and ties played over two games, it maximises the chances that the big names get through to the later stages. Cynically, you might say that’s because the big names pull the big TV audiences; but it does also mean that whoever wins the competition has a good claim to being the best team in Europe.
What Europe needs to complement this ‘league’ is a proper cup competition: the four semifinalists from every national cup competition in Europe being entered into an unseeded cup which is straightforward knockout football from beginning to end. And if Barcelona gets drawn against Manchester United in the first round, well, that’s the luck of the draw. And if Juventus get knocked out in the first round after a flukey goal and a lung-busting defensive performance by a team in the Polish second division: that’s part of the fun.
Of course for this to work, you would need all the top teams to take part. They’d have to play both in the Champion’s League and the new-format UEFA Cup. And that gives you scheduling problems. But if you could find a way to do it — you could exempt teams in the UEFA Cup from having to play in the League Cup, for a start — it would be such a fab competition. Are you listening, Michel Platini?