In just a single generation English football has changed almost beyond recognition. The way it is now watched, by fans attending games in modern American-style stadiums or remotely via live broadcasts, is utterly different from the 1990s. So too are the nationalities of the team owners, coaches and players. And the money now involved dwarves what was in the game 20, or even just 10, years ago

But last Saturday brought the traditional curtain-closer to the English football season, the FA Cup Final, and with it a nostalgic slice of old time tradition. The match was won by Arsenal, who beat favorites Chelsea two goals to one in a fast flowing and entertaining game. Football finals can be tight and tense affairs – and accordingly often dull – but this, it was widely agreed, was anything but.

Professional football, by far the world’s most watched sport, has its industrial revolution roots in the UK and the English FA Cup is the planet’s oldest recognized football tournament. The 2016/17 competition was the 136th FA Cup and it’s no surprise that an aura of history surrounds the final and indeed the tournament.

The competition starts in the summer month of August, is played over 14 rounds and this year was contested by 736 clubs, from the lowest levels of English football to the very top. It saw 11,000 players take part.

Football, as even the most casual of observers will know well, is today dominated by commercial concerns, so to understand where this venerable old competition really fits in the modern game, it’s important to understand the financial numbers. When Arsenal took home the Cup they also left with a prize of £1,800,000. Runners up Chelsea received £900,000.

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King George V presents the FA Cup trophy to Tommy Boyle of Burnley F.C., in April 1914. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The Cup Final was played on Saturday 28th May, on a sunny and beautifully breezy early summer’s day in front of 90,000 at England’s totemic Wembley Stadium in London. The very next day the same ground hosted another football match: Huddersfield Town beat Reading in a second-tier League Championship playoff final to secure promotion to the English Premier League.

This gave Huddersfield access to the wealthiest league in the world. Entering the EPL is worth at least £170 million (US$220 million). This annual play-off game at Wembley is now called the richest game on the planet because of the dividend it brings in EPL prize money but mainly for the cash from broadcast earnings and associated sponsorship deals. On average, every EPL game is broadcast live into 730 million homes in more than 185 countries worldwide. So the FA Cup nets you almost £2 million, while competing in the Premier League brings £200 million. It’s not hard to see the mismatch in the maths.

The vast commercial disparity here has meant clubs struggling in the EPL make the hard-headed, pragmatic but possibly cynical choice of fielding second-string sides for early-round FA Cup games. Which means they often lose to teams in far lower leagues. The likes of Arsenal and Chelsea can field weaker sides but still win because they have squads of sufficient size and strength to do so.

The weaker, lower division sides – it is argued – no longer beat the bigger teams by being plucky and full of fight but rather because the “giants” have decided to focus on staying in the top division. A generation ago this would have been unheard of

It’s always been popular in England to talk about “the magic of the Cup”. The phrase refers to the drama and romance of the David versus Goliath clashes that the draw throws up. But, these days, it also nostalgically calls up a spirit and memory of another, less commercial, and fast disappearing age.

The FA Cup, with this’ “magic”, remains a very popular mainstream event in English sporting life. Take this year’s competition and the fortunes of semi-professional Lincoln City. They became the first non-professional League team to make it to the Quarter Finals, where, after a plucky start, they were trounced 5-0 by Arsenal. Lincoln made almost US$2 million from their cup run and received huge mainstream exposure. Yes, the magic of the FA Cup does indeed endure.

It could also be argued that the lackluster participation in the Cup by the lesser EPL teams in some way aids this “magic”. Then again, any sort of half-heartedness is reviled by the purist fans, who exist in England in their millions. They see this “non participation” as diluting the romance. The weaker, lower division sides – it is argued – no longer beat the bigger teams by being plucky and full of fight but rather because the “giants” have decided to focus on staying in the top division. A generation ago this would have been unheard of.

Another recent change in English football is the influence of the Big Red One. And that’s not Manchester United or Liverpool.

Chinese influence on world soccer has exploded since President Xi Jinxing announced in 2015 that he wanted China to become “among the world’s best.” Shortly after, on his State visit to the UK, as well as drinking pints with then Prime Minister David Cameron, he took smiling selfies with Manchester City superstar Sergio Agüero and shortly after the Chinese state-run equity firm Citic Capital bought a US$400 million stake in Manchester City Football Group,

It seemed to declare that China’s interest in the global football business was well and truly open.

Xi Jinping paid a visit to Manchester City’s ground during his state visit to the UK in October 2015. Photo via Twitter
Xi Jinping paid a visit to Manchester City’s ground during his state visit to the UK in October 2015. Photo via Twitter

Since Xi’s visit, there have been near-daily headlines in the English press about the supposed record-breaking moves of top-earning players from the English Premier League to the big-spending Chinese Super League, which has seemed to emerge almost from nowhere. When it started this year’s new season, in March, it set a new spending record of US$410 million over the winter transfer window. Europeans and South Americans had been signed on contracts reported to be worth as much as US$40 million a year, higher than anywhere else in the world. A Chinese club offered Brazilian superstar Ronaldo US$105 million a year. Apparently he declined.

As is so often the case in China, things seem to have moved too quickly and Beijing has become so worried about how this influx of the world’s best players – or, in many instances “just past their best” players – will stymie the development of locally nurtured talent that a new “100%” tax will this month be introduced on all new international signings. It has worked, because the transfers stopped almost immediately.

But Chinese influence is being in the English game too. All four football clubs in England’s West Midlands now have Chinese owners. Southampton, Hull, Everton, Crystal Palace, Liverpool and Cardiff have, in just the last few weeks, also been linked to Chinese buyouts.

Of course, it is not just China. Foreign owners are more than common. The majority owners of Manchester City, now partly owned by Beijing, are the rulers of the United Arab Emirates. A generation ago, foreign ownership of English football clubs was an absolute rarity. Now it is the norm.

Armed police walk near Wembley Stadium as fans arrive ahead of the FA Cup final football match between Arsenal and Chelsea, Britain, May 27, 2017. REUTERS/Hannah Mckay
Last week’s FA Cup Final was conducted under a heightened police presence. Photo: Reuters / Hannah Mckay

Something that has also changed is the fans. The FA Cup Final was contested by two London teams and the constant supply of metro trains that bought them to Wembley had both sets mingled in together. One gaggle in red, one gaggle in blue, both singing their podgy, beer-filled bellies out right in front of one another.

The trains, warm in the London heat, may have been rich with the funk of stale beer and the banter may have been course and crude, but it was remarkably friendly, good natured and non-violent. Not that long ago, this would not have been the case: Arsenal and Chelsea fans have not always stood next to each singing songs together.

And another change was the fans’ reaction to the police. The event was held days after the Manchester terrorist attack in the north of England and security at Wembley was heavy. But, in what would have been unheard of a generation ago, both sets of fans, full of beer and pumped up for the game, nevertheless took time to thank the police for being there.

In former days, some of these fans might have been been attacking each other, and indeed also the police. Now it would seem they are all too aware of a far more viscous enemy. So why fight each other? Times have changed indeed.