The game itself was almost beside the point. The score certainly was.
The more acute stuff was the airhorns and the people watching the game from their backyards from the houses that ringed Marine’s field as the eighth-tier club faced Tottenham Hotspur, the Premier League leaders just a few weeks ago. The important matter was that teams 161 places apart in England’s football pyramid nevertheless shared the field in the third round of the FA Cup on Sunday, the biggest mismatch in the storied tournament’s history.
The pertinent subject was the residual magic of the world’s oldest continuous tournament.
There is a perfectly coherent argument to be made for the abolishing of tournaments like the FA Cup. Any club in England can participate and attain glory if only it wins enough games, and there is real charm in that. But the tournament is mostly like any other competition that isn’t the Premier League or the Champions League: predictable. It’s a nuisance to the big clubs and an impossible dream for the small ones.
But every so often, a tiny club makes a breakthrough and you’re reminded of all the virtues of sport that tend to get lost in this hyper-commercial age.
Like sixth-tier Chorley knocking out Wayne Rooney’s decimated second-tier Derby County on Saturday.
Or fourth-tier Crawley Town eliminating Premier Leaguers Leeds United 3-0 earlier on Sunday.
Or Marine reaching the third round at all, upsetting four separate teams from higher divisions just to get there. It didn’t much matter that Spurs strolled to a 5-0 victory. Or really that Marine was first to come close to scoring when Neil Kengni’s long-range shot nearly surprised Joe Hart and pinged off his crossbar.
There is beauty in a band of superstars facing off against a team of rather more ordinary young men, playing for just a few hundred dollars a week when they aren’t at their day jobs in occupations such as trash collectors. A club that had to beat the likes of Barnoldswick Town, Frickley Athletic, Runcorn Linnets, Nantwich Town, Chester, Colchester United and Havant and Waterlooville just to get here, teams that sound like they were made up. A club that hangs the addresses of the abutting houses on the fence around its field so that the ball boys know which doorbell to ring to retrieve errant balls.
One of the big upsides to small clubs making a run in the FA Cup is that they receive a financial windfall that tends to far exceed their regular earnings in an entire season. Between TV money, prize money and ticket sales – the one-off game locations are randomly drawn, no matter how big the mismatch – a push into the third round when the pro teams join the competition can be transformative.
Marine was at risk of missing out on all that, however. It has lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in income since the beginning of the pandemic, and even with a smattering of fans allowed into its small facility, it looked like the chance would be lost. But several new sponsors stepped in for the day, as the game was broadcast on a national BBC channel. And the club sold “virtual” tickets, a symbolic gesture to support the struggling organization. After a push on social media by several famous footballing figures, the club sold more than 30,000 – far exceeding the 3,185-person capacity in its stadium.
There is something disarming in watching a team that played in the Champions League final two seasons ago turn up to a patchy field in Merseyside in the dead of winter, to face a bunch of semi-professionals on a dream run.
This kind of mismatch inoculates against the cynicism of the modern game and its unabating churn of monetization. It’s a reminder of the democracy of this competition, where any band of friends can get together and work their way up to a match against Spurs or Manchester United or Liverpool. This kind of once-in-a-lifetime event for the Marine club resonates with us all. The workaday men in their brush with fame.
It’s a feel-good story in a time that can feel hopeless.
Games like this beg the question whether mechanisms should be introduced to the tournament that makes them more common. Perhaps that’s a self-defeating exercise, as the uniqueness of such a matchup is part of the thrill. But it would go some way in helping to share the spoils of the game, for just a little more of the big-time money to trickle down to places like the eighth tier, where the scraps and the rounding errors of the Premier League can sustain the grassroots game broadly and profoundly.
But at a minimum, Sunday’s affair was refreshing. It was something different. Something that felt oddly attainable in a time when the sport’s elite are further out of the reach of the fans than ever.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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