It is the memories passed down between the generations that slowly, steadily accrete into something that becomes a tradition, and so it is with the greatest tradition in English soccer: worrying about the diminishing majesty of the F.A. Cup.
Those who were there speak in hushed tones of the year that Manchester United was forced to pull out because the authorities wanted the team to play in a tournament in Brazil instead, or of the time that Liverpool sent out a squad of under-7s because the club had a more important game in Qatar the next day.
But every club has its own story: a set of reserves sent out to play so as to save the first team for the league; a manager admitting that the cup is a distraction from the much more important business of securing 14th place, rather than 15th, in the Championship.
Nowhere is this played out in more somber tones than on British television, where the only thing that interrupts the self-flagellation about the demise of the magic of the cup is the advertising proclaiming that it is, in fact, alive and well. It is a rich irony, because what has destroyed the cup more than anything else is television, both because of the money it has poured into the Premier League and because of its insatiable demand for content.
One of the things that made the cup final special was the fact that it had a whole day reserved for it: We called it “cup final day.” There is no better gauge of its reduction in status than the fact that this year the game — Chelsea vs. Leicester on Saturday — will be squeezed in between Southampton’s meeting with Fulham and Brighton’s match with West Ham.
Still, there is hope. The other problem faced by the F.A. Cup these days is that it is almost always won by a team that considers it, at best, a consolation prize and, at worst, an afterthought, as Chelsea will if it emerges victorious at Wembley this weekend. It is nice for Chelsea, winning the F.A. Cup, but its eyes are cast on much brighter horizons.
Things are different for its opponent, Leicester City. Leicester has never won the cup. It came close, three times, in the 1960s, but lost in each final it reached. For some time — possibly until it won the Premier League in 2016 — those defeats defined the club, at least in the eyes of a generation of fans. This weekend is a long-awaited chance to address that longing.