The poisonous war behind the move to rip the heart out of the FA Cup

Fifa president Gianni Infantino (left) and  Aleksander Ceferin (right) – The FA Cup is collateral damage in the poisonous war for football's wealth
The battle to control football is now between Fifa and Uefa - Getty Image/Gualter Fatia

There is one key battle in global football over the next decade which will decide who controls the broadcast billions that flow into the game, and in the priorities of those fighting it, the FA Cup simply does not figure at all.

It is, at its apex, between Uefa and Fifa. Both battling for the primacy of their club competitions, the calendar space in which to play them and the value that can be extracted from pay-television. This is being fought in different dimensions, with different backers – chiefly from the Middle East – and along geopolitical lines, but at the margins of the struggle the effect is still felt keenly. First and foremost, in the domestic leagues and then rippling out beyond to the dear old FA Cup.

The elimination of all Cup replays, including the third round, and the relocation of the final from the traditional endpoint of the English season to the penultimate weekend is the collateral of a poisonous war for football’s wealth. That wealth is being funnelled upwards to the big clubs in the big competitions and in order to do so their enablers in the governing bodies must seize as many of the match days as they can.

We can hardly say it is a surprise. The Fifa president Gianni Infantino and his Uefa rival Aleksander Ceferin have both explicitly stated their preference for a smaller domestic game – 18-club top-flights and only one domestic cup competition.

Their influence is such that France, for example, has recently made exactly those adjustments. As for England, the three main governing bodies prune as best they can with the schedule left to them. The secondary domestic competition, the League Cup, crucial to the revenue of the Football League [EFL], survives for now, although Uefa and Fifa have put a price on its head. FA Cup replays are dead. There is nothing left to cut.

When clubs in the EFL and beyond look around for someone to blame for the cancellation of these paydays for the lower leagues their gaze will naturally alight upon the Premier League and the Football Association, which jointly announced the FA Cup change on Thursday. Yet even organisations as powerful as those are being buffeted by convulsions in the world game beyond their control.

The new Champions League format expands next season from six to eight group-stage games, and an additional play-off round before the round of 16. It does so for one reason: more games equals more money. For Uefa, scrambling to consolidate the support of the biggest clubs after the Super League revolution of 2021, the gamble has paid off.

It has secured a 25 per cent uplift in media rights sales for the 2024-2027 cycle of its three expanded competitions. That compares to a four per cent increase for the Premier League media rights in the same period. There is a lucrative but finite pool of money to be earned from broadcasters, and Uefa and Fifa are attacking for the greatest possible share.

The losers will be the Premier League and all those who rely upon it, as well as those markets for the FA and EFL competitions. Around 16 per cent of the Premier League’s revenue is redistributed to the rest of English football. The more the top league earns, the more cascades down, and the share will be even greater once the New Deal is agreed with the EFL. The more of those revenues seized by Uefa and Fifa, the less the English game can expect.

Its effect will be everywhere eventually. The leading players in the biggest clubs in Europe will be paid even more. Those in its smaller clubs will be paid less. For the fans of the great domestic competitions, like the FA Cup, there will be a push to the margins. By way of example, the new Champions League group stage will not end in December next season but extend into January. Symbolic because January is prime FA Cup month, when the third and fourth rounds are played. But the land grab is much bigger than that.

Fifa’s new expanded Club World Cup competition launches in June next year and that too sucks in more of the match days of the game, and with it more of the broadcast wealth. A 32-team competition played in June and July every four years – and possibly every two in the future – for which there was no popular groundswell of support in a sport saturated by games. All so that Infantino can chisel off some more of the broadcast millions spent on club competitions.

Where does the FA Cup sit in all this? The Premier League and the FA are duty bound to defend it. Both know that damaging the Cup is politically dangerous. But both have also now been backed up against a wall. The new rights cycle tender for 2027-2030 is not far away, and once again Fifa and Uefa will seek an offering that keeps interested the cash-hungry clubs they serve. The space domestic leagues and cups occupy will be under attack again, and this time there may well be a mortal blow delivered.

Ultimately, this struggle is beyond the power of one domestic body, or even one government regulator to halt. It will be the fans that say no. Or at least the customers who abandon their pay-TV subscriptions in protest against Big Football’s obsession: that being the game’s most famous names playing each other repeatedly in one Fifa or Uefa format or another for all eternity.

The problem is that a globalised audience seems not to care. While there is vast wealth to be made both these bodies will keep invading the space once kept sacred for that arresting old idea we still call domestic football, both its leagues and its cups.