Gaelic Football in Ireland is a rare sport in that its league competition is much less prestigious than its Cup.
There is a Gaelic Football league, though it is a somewhat sleepy affair that runs only from February through April. Americans may be startled to learn that it is called the National Football League, or N.F.L. (It dates to 1925, only three years after the somewhat more famous N.F.L. took that name.)
But that is only a warmup to the big event. Even if you're not an aficionado, you may have heard of it: the all-Ireland Senior Football Championship, a knockout Cup that rivets Irish sport fans every year. Here's how it works.
First teams must qualify in the Provincial championships, contested in May, June and July. There are four of these, each a single-elimination knockout event with between 6 and 11 teams. Teams compete in their home region: either Munster, Leinster, Connacht, or Ulster. The total number of teams entered is 33: one representing each of the 32 Irish counties, except Kilkenny, plus teams representing Irish diaspora in New York and London.
(In case you are wondering, Gaelic football just isn't popular in Kilkenny. The county rejoined the N.F.L. in 2008, and has so far managed to win just one game there.)
The winners of these four tournaments head straight to the all-Ireland finals. The 28 losers (excluding New York, play in a national repechage tournament (the "Qualifiers") in June and July, also single elimination, producing four more entrants for the all-Ireland. Teams that advanced the furthest in the regionals get a bye (or even several byes) in the qualifiers.
The all-Ireland itself is a single elimination eight-team tournament played in August or September. The winner is the undisputed champion of Ireland, regardless of how it fared in league play.
The obvious drawback of such a system is that it leaves most teams with only a few important games to play all year. Even a pretty good team may play only two-to-four games in the whole tournament.
Take County Down, which was the runner-up in 2010. In 2011, it was knocked off in the quarterfinals of the Ulster championship by Armagh. In the qualifiers, it won three straight games, but lost at the final hurdle to Cork. That's it, a five-game season and it's wait till next year.
On the plus side, of course, is that every game is incredibly important. At the provincial stage, losers get sent to the difficult path of the qualifiers, and in the qualifiers and the all-Ireland tournament proper, losers go home. That drama helps explain why every year Croke Park sells out for the final.
Is there any other sport in the world that stakes so much on a single-elimination tournament? FRB can think of one. It's hurling, the other quintessentially Irish sport.
Hurling's format is very similar, though smaller. Fourteen teams contest two Provincial championships, Munster and Leinster, with winners advancing straight to the all-Ireland semifinals. A repechage produces four more teams who play off for the other two semifinal berths. And yes, the hurling final drew an 80,000 sellout crowd to Croke Park as well last year.
The winner? FRB is delighted to reveal that it was Kilkenny. Who needs Gaelic football?