Portsmouth has nothing to lose vs. Chelsea

Martin Rogers

Follow Martin Rogers on Twitter at @mrogersyahoo

The world's oldest soccer tournament retains its mystique thanks to 129 years of extraordinary storylines, but few have been as improbable as this weekend's showdown between the poorest club in the world and one of the richest ever.

Saturday's FA Cup final in England is the ultimate tale of David vs. Goliath between Portsmouth, which is mired in $201 million of debt and already relegated from the English Premier League after finishing dead last, and newly crowned champion Chelsea, which is funded by the riches of Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich.

For several weeks earlier this season, Portsmouth's players were not paid as the club's debts piled up and the extent of the financial carnage that has ravaged the club started to become clear. While millionaire soccer stars rarely gain much sympathy from a public that generally earns a fraction of their salaries, the Pompey players deserve credit for continuing to play on and mounting an incredible Cup run.

"There has been a lot of uncertainty all season," Portsmouth goalkeeper David James said. "It was hard to know what was really going on, what was happening with the club, when people were going to get paid."

Eventually, with Portsmouth on the brink of bankruptcy, an administrator moved in and dramatically tightened the reins. More than once, key players were benched in order to avoid the payment of appearance bonuses due to kick in.

Even with wage payments missed on many occasions, the team nevertheless carried on in order to save face and to enhance their value when they move during the player transfer window this summer.

And move on they will. The entire first-team squad is for sale in an attempt to make a drop in Portsmouth's ocean of debt. A fax detailing the available players, with suggested price tags, has already been sent to every other EPL club.

Yet the real victims were members of the club's staff, which was laid off en masse. James and some senior players attempted to chip in to pay the salaries of some staff members, only to be told such action was in conflict with administration regulations.

Creditors – from printing companies to kit suppliers, local schools to the ambulance service – are unlikely to ever see the full amount they are owed.

The kind of financial plight Portsmouth finds itself in is heavily frowned upon by EPL chiefs and, as a result, the team was docked nine points in March, effectively condemning it to a fate of relegation from the top division that was already likely.

Under those circumstances, Pompey's FA Cup run has been extraordinary. Or according to Portsmouth head coach Avram Grant, who took Chelsea to the Champions League final two years ago, "a fairytale."

After suffering through 24 defeats and 66 goals conceded in the EPL – and the very real prospect their team could cease to exist – Pompey's beleaguered fans deserve to be rewarded with Saturday's day out at London's Wembley Stadium.

"This is the only place in the world where this can happen," Grant said. "The Premier League should be proud of us. They should go to each and every one of our supporters and say, 'You kept the true spirit of the Premier League alive.' When I look from the outside I don't believe it. It's impossible. How can we do it this year, go to Wembley with so much pride with our heads held high?"

There have been no such problems at Chelsea. Abramovich's oil fortune ensures steady (and astronomical) pay checks, and despite missing out on the dream of a Champions League title, the West London side was able to end Manchester United's run of three straight EPL crowns.

Chelsea won both meetings against Portsmouth this season, with a surprisingly narrow 2-1 victory at home and a crushing 5-0 destruction on the road. So there is no chance for Pompey on Saturday, right? Probably not.

However, the Cup sprinkles its magic in the oddest of ways. There have been huge upsets in the final before, most notably when Sunderland tasted success in 1973, West Ham in 1980 and Wimbledon in 1988.

Of course, Chelsea is a huge favorite. But so was Tottenham Hotspur, the EPL's fourth-place finisher which lost to Portsmouth in the semifinals.

"If you don't prepare well, you can have difficulty playing against them," Chelsea head coach Carlo Ancelotti said. "We have a lot of respect for the opposing team, who did a fantastic job to get to the final.

"Portsmouth had a difficult year, but we have to play against players with strong, strong motivation."

A Portsmouth win on Saturday would not be enough to rescue the club from a bleak future. But it would be another miracle in the history of the FA Cup.

"We are not supposed to win," Grant said. "But this is the FA Cup. This is where these things happen."

What to Read Next