For many years, growing up in England, the biggest day of the footballing calendar was at the end of May. It was the culmination of the season, but also on an always-sunny Saturday at 3pm, it was the one chance where every club involved could consider themselves an equal. In the FA Cup Final every dog could have his day. My childhood is steeped with these memories. My oldest companion is a bear, given to me as I was a week old when my home team had won the thing. He is named after the manager, Bobby Robson.
Robson sits on my desk as I type this, wondering what happened to the glory of the Cup. With tattered ears, a missing eye and riven with dust mites, he wants to know why teams like Ipswich can no longer win it any more. He watched Liverpool lose to Wimbledon with me on TV as he joined us in astonished breathlessness as Keith Houchen, a balding and unkempt throwback from football’s neolithic era, threw himself at a cross and scored a diving header to win it for Coventry City against an almighty Tottenham. For many men (and a handful of bears) the verb Houchen still represents the highest possible achievements in life.
Inside of us all is the possibility to Houchen whatever it is we want to in this life. His name remains a beacon.
But Robson has long since given up on the FA Cup. He is as old fashioned as the cat. The Sportsdesk is propped up with these two cynical and jaded old animals. They are my miserable moral compasses, constantly whining about how things used to be better.
But they seem strangely enthused about the DFB Pokal – or nowadays, at least in its early stages. The cat was a sprightly and enthusiastic kitten, fucking and fighting his way through the streets of Kreuzberg when Union reached the final in 2001. They didn’t win, but the journey was fairytale enough for him, Nina Hagen’s astonishingly breathless (and mostly, though it didn’t matter, tuneless) rendering of her anthem for the club before kick-off brought a slice of SO36 to the Olympiastadion along with the hordes of Köpenick.
As Hertha BSC’s under-23s run to the final in the following two years remains the answer to one of the most charming quiz questions going. It was as implausible as it was glorious.
Recently though, things have been harder, but that doesn’t mean that the smaller clubs of the city haven’t given their all in the big cup. BAK07 of course humiliated the Bundesliga’s Hoffenheim in the first round three years ago and also created a verb in their victory: to Wiese is the opposite of to Houchen. It is to lie sprawled on the ground wondering what happened to your glittering prospects in the face of an underdog.
Two years previously to that I saw my first big cup game as BAK came so close to beating Mainz at the Poststadion. They had come so close, as BFC Dynamo did last year against Stuttgart, valiantly fighting, bravely charging and battling as the country’s press waited for their fans to start a fight on the biggest stage. They didn’t, and the hacks who normally wouldn’t be seen anywhere near a stadium left shrugging their shoulders without the story they had all hoped for.
And now it is Viktoria’s turn to have a go at the big cup. On Saturday night they face the Bundesliga’s Eintracht Frankfurt. The cameras will be there to beam the game out to the nation and one of Germany’s oldest clubs – Viktoria were founded in 1889 – will have the chance to present their new face to the world. They will have a chance to add a hint of that romantic gleam to the old pot.
It may not be pretty. Thomas Herbst, Viktoria’s coach, is a man for whom the word pragmatism could have been invented. But with tooth and claw Viktoria will try and seize this opportunity, they will scrap until the bitter end, rope-a-dope style. They will try to absorb all of Eintracht’s blows with the hopes of becoming a club who are known for more than just being as old as the hills.
Because Viktoria are no longer old. They moved last year to Lichterfelde, they merged, bringing their tradition to LFC’s’s superb set-up. And with the unwieldliest name imaginable (the DFB would need a whole new cup to have space to write Fußballclub Viktoria 1889 Berlin Lichterfelde-Tempelhof e. V. should they win it) they will try and give a little hope to all of those underdogs (and cats and bears), to the losers and the poor and decrepit. They will try and give a little glimmer of hope to an ageing and cynical Sportsdesk.
Frankly, on Saturday night I hope that a single Viktoria player Houchens the hell out of Eintracht Frankfurt. It would mean that there is still the chance for all of us to Houchen whatever it is that we want to do.