If you flipped through the various soccer channels this weekend looking for the regular selection of English Premier League matches, you may have been a bit confused. Sure you could find Manchester City hosting Manchester United, but then Tottenham Hotspur played Cheltenham, Fulham beat Charlton, and who the hell is Sheffield Wednesday (who beat West Ham)? You may have thought Dagenham & Redbridge were a 1970’s folk band or that Brighton & Hove Albion was a new law firm in England. No my friends, it wasn’t a prolong new year’s hangover, at least we hope, you found yourself right in the middle of the 3rd round of the FAcup. So now we will attempt to explain the tournament in the only manner which makes sense to our audience, by comparing it to American sports tournaments.
The FAcup or Football Association cup is both the oldest and largest domestic soccer championship in the world. The first tournament was played in 1871 between 15 different clubs with a team simply known as the Wanderers winning the title. I know what you’re thinking, “is this going to be another one of your boring history lessons?” A wise man once said if we don’t learn from history we are destined to repeat it. While that may be a deep lesson for subjects such as nuclear weapons and unprotected sex, it really doesn’t apply to soccer; I just thought it sounded like the right thing to say. Why should you care about the FAcup? It’s all comes down to one simple number; 763. That is the number of teams competing in the knock-out tournament; 763 domestic professional teams. Just about every professional team in England, meeting basic eligibility rules, can compete in the competition. How could we possibly wrap our heads around a number that big? In the US, the professional sport with the largest number of teams is baseball. If you were to combine all of the teams in the Majors, AAA, AA, and A Leagues you would only have 270 teams; just over 1/3 the number of teams competing in the FAcup. Perhaps the best possible US comparison would be if the men’s college basketball tournament was open to every college team in the country. No more the debate of 64, 68, or 128 teams; all Division I, II, and III schools get in for the single elimination tournament; all 1073 of them. Imagine the smallest college you can think of with a basketball team and having that school play the likes of Duke, Kentucky, or North Carolina. There are 24 divisions of soccer in England, but only the top 11 levels are considered professional football and are allowed to compete in the FA cup. To understand the Football Association pyramid the best reference I could find was this article showing all of the divisions (FA System). For the smallest teams they may share grounds with other sports, may not have a permanent home, and rarely have more than a handful of spectators at their matches. The tournament begins with the “extra prequalifying” round between teams in levels 9, 10, and 11 of the football systems. The 204 winners move on to the “prequalifying” round where they are joined by the 130 teams from level 8 of the football pyramid. From there the contest moves into the first of 6 qualification rounds, the first being the 167 previous winners joined by the 65 teams from level 7. The second qualifying round sees the addition of the 44 clubs from the North and South Conference and the 24 National Conference teams receive byes to the forth qualification round. The qualification rounds result in 32 teams which are then combined with the 48 from League One and Two to make-up the first and second “proper” rounds of the tournament. The 44 League Championship and Premier League teams join the competition in the third proper round leaving a total of 64 teams who battle 4 more rounds until there are only 4 teams left. The “final four” play the semifinals and finals at Wembley Stadium in London in May and the winner is crowd FA Cup champion and earns automatic birth to the Europa League tournament unless they have already qualified through their league then the runner-up receives the bid. It may look like organized chaos on paper, but the FA Cup system hasn’t changed since 1992, and has changed very little in the 140 years it has existed.
Just like with March Madness and the NCAA Men’s Basketball tournament, people love upsets, they are always looking for that Cinderella team, the underdog to cheer. Coming into the third round, Salisbury City out of the Level 6 Conference North were the lowest level team left in the tourney, however they lost to Sheffield United 3-1 and were eliminated from the tourney. The Red Dragons of Wrexham FC are the lowest team still in the competition after they played to a 1-1 draw at League Championship side Brighton & Hove Albion meaning Cinderella will host a replay in the next few weeks with a chance to move onto the fourth round. Wrexham might have history on their side, while being rank 92nd in the league they defeated Aresenal who was ranked 1st in the FA Cup in 1992. However in the history of the competition the top flight teams always seem to come out on top in the end. Only once, in 1901 has a team outside of the top 2 levels won the competition, which was Tottenham Hotspur. There have been a handful of titles won by Level 2 teams, most recently it was Southampton defeating Manchester United in 1976 for the title.
The bottom line is that the FA Cup offers a chance for nearly every team in England to dream, even if just for a single round, that they could play against the “big boys” and potentially win. Hopefully you have a chance to catch some of the tournament over the next few months. We will be back with our EPL “Monday Morning Keeper” next week, no need to fear.