Every season, the FA Cup seems to become more and more of an incovenient sideshow though, I suspect that since last May, the FA Cup has regained status as a Trophy (with a capital T, term copyright Arsene Wenger, on a par with fourth place in the Premier League and the Community Shield). With the German season starting this weekend with the first round of the DfB-Pokal, I’d like to put the case forward that its position as the most prestigious cup competition in Europe is under threat.
First off, the competition is unobtrusive. There are only six rounds, with no replays: ties are decided by extra time and penalties if needs be. The rounds are fairly far between and played midweek, so it doesn’t break up the Bundesliga season as much as the FA Cup punctuates the second half of the Premier League season.
The relative rarity and resulting diminished chance of injury means teams are freer to put out a full strength team in cup games, meaning there is little chance of conflict between League, Cup, and European commitments, though potentially this is bad news for mid-ranking teams who might have a better chance of silverware if Bayern and Dortmund are more distracted by other commitments. Not to mention, most teams are knocked out quite early on, so it’s “out of the way” for them. The final, played in Berlin’s Olympic stadium after the end of the Bundesliga season, is “must-watch” in most German households too, and is usually a pretty good game.
Its true beauty, though, is that the first round is the first game of the season, except for those clubs involved in European preliminary rounds and the DfL-Supercup (a sort of German Community Shield). There a sixty-four teams: the 36 Bundesliga teams (both divisions) from the previous season, the best four teams from the 3. Liga (the equivalent of the Conference) and the winners and selected runners up from 21 of the previous season’s regional cup competitions. This ranges from strong regions like Bavaria and Westphalia, to small and weaker ones like the Saarland and Hamburg. The non-league teams are always drawn at home to a Bundesliga team, and thanks to this, the prospect of penalties, and it being the first game of the season, upsets are relatively common- as I write, Dynamo Dresden, relegated to the 3. Liga last season, are beating Champions League-bound Schalke 04 2-1. That said, hammerings aren’t unknown too. Hamburg’s USC Paloma were soundly thrashed 9-0 by Hoffenheim, with the record being Bayern’s 16-1 victory against Bavaria’s DJK Waldberg in 1997.
The big teams will usually put out their best XI to give a decent run-out before the business of the Bundesliga starts the following week, and as mentioned before, are largely free to do so for the rest of the season. With upsets, big teams trying, small clubs always making an appearance, and the games being so rare as to be an event worth waiting for, I wonder if the FA Cup’s claim to being the daddy of domestic cup competitions is really uncontested.