While it may not be well-known in the United States, The FA Cup is considered the most prestigious tournament in England. The FA Cup stands for The Football Association Challenge Cup and represents a long, rich, and passionate history of soccer.
The tournament was established in 1871, with the hopes that it would support the “minnows” from lower leagues to become known as British powerhouses.
The basic concept of The FA Cup depends on the English Football Pyramid; the nation is home to nine different soccer divisions, or as they call them in England, “levels.”
The Barclay’s Premier League (also known as the English Premier League, but often just referred to as the Premier League) reigns at the top of the pyramid and boasts some of the most elite, wealthy, and talented soccer teams in the world.
Arsenal (based in North London) and Manchester United (based in Manchester), both in the Premier League, hold the highest number of FA Cup trophies. They are tied with a whopping six each.
The divisions below the Premier League never seriously threaten the prestige of Premier League teams. That is, until it comes to the FA Cup. For example, in the 2003-2004 FA Cup, Millwall FC, a second-tier team reached the finals, losing 3-2 against the powerhouse Manchester United. There have been numerous occasions when lower division teams reached the deep knockout stages, and even made it to the final.
Gavin Birmingham, Lick-Wilmerding’s boys’ and girls’ varsity soccer coach, played professionally in England and participated in five FA Cups. According to Birmingham, there are a few reasons that lower division teams find success in the cup.
“I think the lower league teams and bottom table clubs do so well because it is a big chance for those players to showcase their talents in front of a worldwide audience in the hope of being picked up by a bigger, more successful, richer club. In addition, I think the premier league players find it difficult to get motivated against lower league clubs, and the teams often field quite a number of reserve players in these games against lower league opposition.”
The FA Cup is more than just logistics, statistics, and success. People attribute the FA Cup as being driven by passionate rivalries, friendships, and love in the soccer world. When watching an FA Cup game, it is easy to see these things; there are crowds piled in and around stadiums, cheering, waving flags, and supporting the clubs true to their hearts.
Birmingham recalls his experiences as a youth in England. “As a Manchester United fan growing up in the 80s and 90s, I got to see my team play at Wembley in the FA cup final in 1985, 1990, 1994, 1995, 1996. So for me as a young boy, experiencing this incredible atmosphere was amazing!”
Unfortunately, that “amazing atmosphere” has begun to taper off. Why is this? Birmingham attests, “Unfortunately the atmosphere is not what it used to be. The FA cup has lost a lot of its relevance since the European Cup became the European Champions League. Now it is more financially beneficial to finish second, third, or fourth in the Premier League and qualify for the Champions League than it is to win the FA Cup. When I was growing up in the 80s and 90s the FA Cup was almost on par with winning the league title. The all-seater stadiums and playing the semi finals at Wembley has also diminished the atmosphere somewhat.”
Hope remains for many like Birmingham that the FA Cup will endure as an integral part of English soccer. While factors like money and interclub business might contribute to the sinking liveliness and significance of the FA Cup, the tournament will always be common ground — common ground for British soccer culture and the love of the beautiful game.
Make sure to catch the FA Cup final, Arsenal vs. Aston Villa, on Saturday May 30, 2015.