The FFA Cup, where football romance goes to die

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Western Sydney Wanderers’ loss to Adelaide City aside, the first FFA Cup has thus far been pretty unremarkable.

In the last round, Melbourne Victory bullied six Tuggeranong United six goals to nil and Central Coast Mariners came within a Matt Sim fifth of doing the same thing to Palm Beach in the first Quarter Final. Beyond that, it’s been a lot of state league sides playing off against other state league sides before losing to A-League sides – on the surface, it’s not half as mythical and magical as narrative said it should be.

Interestingly, but probably more obviously, neither Sydney FC nor Adelaide United are state league teams, but I needed to start somewhere. Adelaide was briefly involved in the old NSL but jumped ship in 2005 when its other ship sank. Meanwhile, Sydney is celebrating its 10th anniversary along with the A-League and five other foundation teams. Stripped of ethnic ties and only 10 years old, the A-League still feels a bit new, and the romanticism of the NSL really doesn’t have any relevance.

Just over 3,500 people managed to make it out to Allianz Stadium, an almost impressive non-effort given the sold-out derby on Saturday night. It’s an unfair comparison to make, sure – it was a derby on a Saturday, as opposed to a game against Adelaide that didn’t really matter to anyone on a Tuesday – but like Mallory climbing Everest, I’m only making it because it’s there.

The few hundred people in the Cove were singing the same song they always sing – y’know the one, about the boys in blue from Moore Park Road, repeated over and over and over and over until the words lose meaning and everyone bleeds from their ears  – and the Adelaide supporters, about thirty-strong in the opposite corner of the stadium, were banging on seats, antagonising at a distance and generally having a good time outside of South Australia.

The most noticeable difference between this game and Saturday’s derby was that were no lines at the gate. There were no lines at the toilet. There were no lines for beers, either, even if they were still $7.40. Half an hour of my life that I’ll never get back since kick off, I went to buy one and missed the first goal – a thoroughly deserved goal for Sergio Cirio, according to the big screen replay. Halftime came and went, and I bought some hot chips ($5.80).

The game swung from Adelaide to Sydney, especially so when Alex Brosque scuffed a lob into the goal within minutes of the restart. Allianz Stadium kills a 3500-strong crowd like Olympic Park kills any crowd – while they’re still expecting Gold Coast United attendances at these matches, they’d be better off finding a local ground to fill – and though both teams lurched forward with discernible determination, there was a sense of inevitable collapse about most moves.

The FFA Cup taps into a nostalgia that the A-League clubs will probably find in a generation or two, but the massive disparity between the state and national sides – financially, historically, culturally – remains at the moment. Understandably, then, it’s not a competition in which A-League fans have made any great emotional investment – yet.

The A-League doesn’t need the FFA Cup, if you think about it. The league has survived 10 years now and this season will feature a match every week televised by a national broadcaster. The Western Sydney Wanderers have found themselves preparing for an Asian Champions League Final just a few years since they were founded and we have David Villa here for a few games, which is ridiculous.

Attendances are up, TV audiences are up, the price for hot chips is up; David Gallop might not be able to convince you that he understands or enjoys football, but he’s the administrative messiah the sport needs.

Graham Arnold spoke of a weakened side in the lead up and to his credit, played a decent number of first team players, but there was a pre-seasonish feel to the whole thing. In the end, it took a red card that wasn’t a red card to get anyone really excited about the game.

Adelaide took advantage of the extra man and, annoyed by the tide slowly turning in Adelaide’s favour in a fledgling cup competition in a mostly-empty stadium on a Tuesday night, the masses focused their frustrations on the referee, defaulting to outrage. Extra-time played out as a slightly more interesting extension of the second half – competitive when players decided to treat the game seriously – until Bruce Djite scored a goal in each half, and romance died.

It’s more difficult to say what the game meant to the players – they seemed fired up enough once Nikola Petkovic had been sent off – but Bruce Djite’s goal in the first half of extra time felt like somebody had announced the death of an unmemorable family member. The Sydney FC collective looked sad enough, but not nearly sad enough to do anything about it.

Pushing where they could, they were crushed by a second from Djite, a player once seriously described by a man sitting in front of me at the Socceroos’ 1-0 loss to China in 2008 as possessing “The best touch in Australian football.” With an eternity to bring the ball down from deep, he turned to send Cirio down the wing before moving inside to score, prompting an exodus.

Robbed of a penalty shootout, the only thing a neutral can ever hope for from extra time, I stayed to the end, waited as the boos descended into vitriol and left as two Sydney fans reflected on the result.

“It’s just a cup,” said one.

“Yeah, [insert expletive here] the cup,” said the other, closing out a thoroughly magical night.

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