Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The FA Cup

For Arsenal, Chelsea and the other big English soccer teams, the FA Cup begins this weekend. Much like the NCAA tournament, 64 teams will be cut to 32, and after 5 more rounds, one winner will remain. 
But the Cup actually began back in August, and 759 teams will eventually participate.
402 of them, from the 9th and 10th levels of English football, began in what is known as the extra preliminary round with the dream of winning 14 straight rounds and becoming Cup champions.
The survivors of that round were joined by 131 teams from level 8 in the preliminary round. The 66 teams from level 7 joined in the first qualifying round. The 44 teams from level 6 (Conference North and South) joined in the second qualifying round, and the third qualifying round winnowed the field by half again.
The 24 teams from the Conference (level 5 in the pyramid) joined in the fourth qualifying round, and 48 more teams from levels 3 and 4 joined in what's oddly known as "round 1."
Now just 20 survivors from all those rounds are being joined by the real cup contenders: the 44 teams that make up the Premier League and the Championship, the top two levels of English soccer. This round is called round 3, though it is the first round for the top teams and may be the 3rd, 4th, 6th, 7th, 8th or 9th for the smaller teams.

So there's a big advantage for the larger teams who bypass so many early rounds, but there there is no further protection for them. That's because the FA Cup, like many soccer cups, is entirely unseeded. Each round is drawn completely randomly; the best two teams or last year's finalists may find themselves facing each other at the first hurdle. This year's third round draw, for example, pits traditional powers Liverpool and Manchester United against each other. By contrast, Huddersfield, from level 3, gets to play Dover Athletic, who have made it this far despite playing league football at level 6. And home field is also drawn randomly. 
Every competition has to balance fairness with excitement. In North America, fairness usually gets the nod, as most major competitions are fully seeded: a 16 seed in the NCAAs always faces a 1; it never gets a lucky break and plays a 5 or 11.(Yes, First Round Bye knows the NCAA is changing this year. Look for a detailed discussion in March.)
Tennis tournaments split the difference, seeding the top players, but letting most of the field fall randomly.  So Nadal won't play Federer in round one, but the luck of the draw may pit No. 18 against No. 20, perhaps, to add some excitement to the round.
Don't plan an FA Cup pool. There's no way of printing out a grid, since no round is drawn until the previous round has been played. This adds another element of excitement and uncertainty.

One final unusual element of the FA Cup is the tradition of replays. Unlike almost any other tournament in soccer (or any other sport) draws are not settled by extra time, penalties or any other method on game day. Instead, the teams switch home grounds and play again in a "replay" a week or so later.
Should the replay end in a draw again, extra time and penalties finally do settle the tie. But as recently as the 1980's, teams played unlimited replays, shuttling back and forth between home grounds until someone won a game.


  1. I love the randomness of it all. Structured randomness, i.e., life itself.

  2. Very good info about FA Cup. I didn't know this