Friday, January 5, 2007

FA Cup FAQ

This weekend brings the return of soccer's greatest sidebar tournament: The Football Association Cup. Let's dive in.

What's the FA Cup?

The FA Cup is a tournament in England that takes place separate from but concurrent to the regular season.

So it's like the playoffs?

No, though it is in a knockout format. But there are no playoffs as we know them in English soccer; this is a whole separate tournament.

What's so great about it?

A few things. Firstly, the fact that it is open to every single team in the country, including amateur sides. Those smaller sides have already contested the first two rounds; this week actually brings us the third round, which is where Premiership and Championship teams get introduced.

Championship?

That's Englsh Soccer for "Second Division." None of the league names make sense anymore. Sigh.

So really small teams might play really big teams?

Happens all the time.

Do the minnows ever win?

Happens considerably more rarely. But it does happen. And how did you know that they're called minnows?

I always use the word minnows when referring to things small but noble.


Hm. A merry coincidence then.

Eh.

Right. Anyway, another thing that's great about the FA Cup is that every team can realistically dream about doing well in it. If they draw enough home games, and/or mediocre enough opponents, they could have a great run.

Draw? Don't they just go by seeds?

Nope, and there's another cool thing. It's a totally random draw. For example, this round Manchester United host Aston Villa. Shoud they win, they may in the next be drawn to play at Bristol Rovers, who play in League Two.

Which is actually...

Division Four. It's stupid.

Well hold on a second. I've always thought it was great to have seeds, for the best teams to not be allowed to meet until the end. This random chicanery undermines that completely.

And therein lies the magic of the Cup. Some of the best teams get knocked out early, leaving any remaining minnows with that much more hope.

This still doesn't really justify why it's all supposed to be so great.

Keep in mind that if you lose you’re out, so every game is intrinsically dramatic.

Got anything else?

Yes, because I haven't had the chance yet to tell you what brought it to legendary prominence: the fact the final is traditionally played in Wembley Stadium.

Wembley? Is that the place where Live Aid happened?

Eventually yes, among other things, including England winning the World Cup there in 1966, but long before that it was the most storied football stadium in the world; and an enormous part of its mystique is the FA Cup.

Anecdotal proof?

Don't mind if I do. The Final was being played every year since 1872, but had not had a a regular home until it moved to the new Wembley Stadium in 1923. For the match between Bolton and West Ham, a reported 200,000 people arrived at the 127,000 capacity stadium for the game. The extra spectators ended up all malingering on the pitch, until a policeman on a white horse helped get them out of the way. This white horse became an iconic image of the newsreel age and, though Bolton won 2-0, the game has been forever known as "The White Horse Final."

I see. So it's beloved because it's a house of memories.

Well, it was. Until they tore it down a few years-

HOLD ON! They tore it down!?!

Yeah. Had to. It was old and dilapidated and lacked adequate toilet facilities.

So where's the final this year?

Maybe the New Wembley, which everyone says is going to be the best stadium in the world.

It's four months away; shouldn't they know by now?

Well, yes. But the building of the new place has been a long, drawn-out affair, coming in late and over-budget with healthy side orders of lawsuits and finger-pointing. Still, it seems more likely than not that the FA Cup will at last return to Wembley this year.

Where's the Final been for the last six years then?

The Millenium Stadium, Cardiff, Wales.

So the English FA Cup was being contested in Wales? That must have been fun for everyone.

Apparently it was a nightmare for fans, as indicated by their tendency to not sell the Final out last year. The last few years have been tough on the FA Cup; the anti-climax of playing the final in fucking Wales wa a quite a blow. Also the fact that one year Man U didn't condescend to defend their title.

Why?

Long story, not interesting, but fairly controversial at the time and yet another reason why Man U suck.

Got it. That's something we can all get on board with.

You didn't have to say that. Thank you.

So are we to then believe that this is the year that the battered old bird regains her lustre?

That is exactly what everyone's hoping. Because no matter what's gone down this century, the FA Cup is the most prestigious cup competition in the world. It deserves better than it has gotten.

Okay, I'm on board. What's the big game of the weekend?

Liverpool/Arsenal is the game of the weekend, tomorrow at noon ET.

Can't wait! I'm sure Fox Soccer Channel has it so I'll just set my TiVo-

Actually, no. That game is on pay-per-view (and is worth it), but FSC's selection is not as exciting.

Great. Way to restore the luster.

I know, I know...

Liverpool/Arsenal would've been great to see; if Arsenal wins they'll move past Liverpool into third place.

Um... no. This is the FA Cup. It has no bearing on anyone's league standing at all.

But the game Arsenal and Liverpool play on Tuesday night?

Also non-league. That's the semi-final, first leg, of the League Cup.

What's that?

If the FA Cup is like the NCAA Tournament of England, the League Cup is the NIT.

Where's that final played?

Don't know, don't care. It's a waste of time. The top clubs don't even play their starters.

Then why does anyone care?

Because if you win it, you're guaranteed a spot in the UEFA Cup.

Jesus, this is a lot of cups. What's the UEFA Cup?

If the Champions League is the NCAA Tournament of Europe-

NIT, got it. Yuck.

Exactly.

So what games are this weekend?

Saturday, 10 AM
Nottingham Forest-Charlton Athletic

Forest
are now languishing in League One (which is actually Division Three), a mighty fall for the club that won back-to-back European Cups in '79 and '80. But Charlton, though a Premiership side, are terrible. This has the hallmarks of an upset all over it.

Watchability: Two Stars

Saturday, Noon
Tamworth-Norwich City
I know this about Norwich- they hate Ipswich, their nicknamed the Canaries and their strip is ridiculous combination of yellow and green. I have never heard of Tamworth, but have just learned the following: they are the second-to-last team in the conference (it would be Division Five if it wasn't technically non-league), their stadium is called The Lamb Ground and holds 518 people. This game will be festive.

Watchability: 3 stars

Sunday, 11ET
Cardiff City-Tottenham Hotspur

Division Two Cardiff have one of the most notoriously enthusiastic fanbases in Britain. A few years ago, that was enough to psych out a very good Leeds side. I wouldn't be surprised if that happened again here.

Watchability: 3 stars

-Brendan Hunt

5 comments:

Phil said...

Now I'm excited. So how many total teams compete in the FA?

thrillofthehunt said...

Going all the way back to the preliminary rounds, which began August 18th, 687 teams take part.

Phil said...

Holy Crap!?! Are you kidding me?

Do fans have multiple alliances to different teams that play on different levels. Like being a Wolves and Hawks fan if they played from time to time?

thrillofthehunt said...

I don't think so. I imagine they may have a Premiership team and a smaller team nearer their childhood home. A bit like having a pro and college team, or in the case of Nick Hornby, literally so. His exquisite book "Fever Pitch" is almost entirely about his love for Arsenal; but long stretches are dedicated to the Fourth Division club of his alma mater, Oxford United.

thrillofthehunt said...

But, to be clear, I think most have their one-and-only team plus (only maybe though) a go-to second choice that changes with the times, just as all of America's second team right now is the Saints, despite them never having been before.