The beautiful game

I first heard of the FA Cup because it was part of a Monty Python skit. In the bit, a purported TV news interviewer asks Karl Marx, Mao Zedong and Che Guevara: What was the last time Coventry City won the FA Cup? They didn’t know and it is a trick question anyway: British football fans know Coventry City has never won the FA Cup. When Python brought a road show to the U.S. in the 1970s and performed this skit, the troop had to change the joke so Americans would understand it.

And yet last night I watched, enthralled, as mighty Chelsea — the defending European club champions and one of the great names in all of soccer — held on for dear life and managed a tie with third-division Brentford in the Cup tournament. The match actually was Sunday — the same day that two other teams from Britain’s top-level Premier League were beaten in the tourney by lower-league teams — and I was watching a replay on the Fox Soccer Channel. And it made me realize that, somehow, European soccer has worked its way up on my sports-watching tier to the point where it now trails only baseball.

For the uninitiated, the Cup is the world’s oldest soccer tournament, dating back to 1871. It’s open to a huge swath of pro teams in Britain — and every wide spot in the road there has a pro team (there are 14 professional teams in London alone). That leads to matchups like the one I watched Monday. Imagine the Washington Redskins playing in a tournament against, say, Catholic University and you’ll get an idea of the gap between Chelsea and Brentford and the unlikeliness of the matchup.

What made this match particularly fun is that it was played on Brentford’s home field, which was a disheveled, swampy mess with a grandstand smaller than some American high school football fields. Chelsea is accustomed to playing on utterly immaculate fields and it was remarkable to watch these world-class pros struggle to execute in the bumpy, slow, sloppy conditions. They missed pass after pass and muffed numerous shots as the ball moved in unpredictable (and often grindingly slow) ways.

Brentford led twice, including a good chunk of the second half. Chelsea tied it relatively late and almost won the match on a bicycle kick by a midfielder. But in the end, the two will have to play again — that’s how ties are settled in the Cup at this stage. This time they’ll play on Chelsea’s field, which you can be quite certain will have the consistency and speed of a pro billiards table, and it’s likely Brentford will be crushed. But we’ll see.

My love of this sport is very specific to European (especially British) teams. MLS teams here simply don’t play with anywhere near the skill that you see in the Premier League or La Liga or Serie A. Once you see those teams play, you get spoiled. (And I haven’t been to a D.C. United game in years, in large part because RFK Stadium is a crumbling pit.)

The tourney continues into May, and the finals almost always end up matching two Premier League teams against each other. But this is the time of year when Britain’s obscure teams dream of greatness. I’ll keep watching.


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