This weekend (March 10-13) sees the quarterfinals of the 2016-17 FA Cup. But just what is the FA Cup?

A Replica of the FA Cup

FA stands for Football Association, and its Cup tournament is one that includes just about every football club in England – as in, more than 700 of them! It has no bracket, no seeding, and every round is one-and-done, starting in the summer and culminating with the final at Wembley Stadium in London every May.

For Americans, imagine a tournament that included every single college football team in the country, from community colleges to NAIA schools like Illinois Wesleyan, all the way up to Alabama and Ohio State – with the possibility that Alabama might have to play at Illinois Wesleyan, Oklahoma City Community College could play at Ohio State, and, in the case of this year’s FA Cup, a 46-year-old reserve goalkeeper, who sleeps in his semi-pro club’s office three nights a week, could get fired for eating a meat pie on the bench during a nationally-televised game against a giant club from London. That kind of thing.

Every country has one of these, even the US, where it’s called the Lamar Hunt Open Cup.

The 2016-17 FA Cup (the 136th!) started last summer with early rounds like Extra Preliminary Qualifying Rounds (how English can you get?). We’re talking clubs like Easington Colliery AFC and Harrowgate Railway Athletic in front of around 100 people.

Sheffield United was playing in both the League and the Cup in a week.

In these early rounds, amateur and semi-pro clubs play, and as with the whole tournament, there is no bracket and no seeding. You just draw names out of a basket: first ball is home, second is away. Then all the winners go back into the basket, you throw in the next-higher level of clubs, and do it again. And if a game ends in a draw, you replay it at the other ground.

The first fully professional clubs, from League One and League Two – think Single-A and Double-A baseball – come in for the First Round Proper (I’m serious) on the first weekend of November. This is perhaps my favorite weekend of the year to go on a trip, because of course this is when you have amateurs getting to play against professionals; for example, I saw Notts County (League Two, aka Single-A) play at Boreham Wood, a semi-pro team in the northern suburbs of London, during a recent visit. “The Wood” even got a replay in Nottingham.

Watford had more fans than usual at this FA Cup tie at Manchester City.

Another fun feature is that the visiting clubs get far more tickets than they would for a regular league game, so as the clubs get bigger in later rounds, you get some huge traveling contingents. This is particularly true if old rivals who are now in different leagues happen to get drawn against each other.

For the big pro clubs, these matches can be a distraction; the TV money in the leagues is so important that they care less and less about the Cup. But for the little ones, the prize money from each round, the sellout at home or the cut of the gate away, not to mention just the chance to play against a big-time club like Manchester City or Chelsea … well, it’s the stuff dreams are made of.

For example, I saw tiny Plymouth Argyle play at mighty Liverpool back on the first weekend of January. That’s the Third Round, which is when the Premier League clubs go in. Liverpool and Plymouth would never play, of course, except during the Cup. Plymouth got 7,000 tickets to the game, sold all of those, requested 2,000 more, and sold all of those!

Plymouth Argyle fans fill an entire end of Anfield, home of Liverpool FC

Plymouth (who, sadly, don’t wear argyle shirts) bravely held Liverpool, who played almost all reserves, to a 0-0 draw – a massive achievement which had the Liverpool coach on the field afterwards, hugging and congratulating the Plymouth players. I was there, lucky me, and took this video of their 9,000 fans celebrating afterwards. (That’s about half the capacity of their home stadium!)

Here are the official highlights; listen to the roar of the visiting fans at the final whistle! Bring it on back to Plymouth, baby!

Well, this weekend is Round Six, the quarterfinals, and there are four great games:

  • Chelsea vs. Manchester United Monday is pretty much the Dodgers playing the Yankees, a battle of titans.
  • Tottenham vs. Millwall Sunday is Premier League vs. League One, or Majors vs. Double-A. But it is also North London vs. South London; the clubs are separated by a mere nine miles. The atmosphere there should be outrageous, with thousands of Tottenham fans making the journey south.
  • Middlesbrough vs. Manchester City Saturday is an all-Premier-League battle, but think of it as more like Harrisburg PA’s Triple-A team (who have played their way to the majors) getting the Red Sox at home.
  • And then there is the big one, the one that evokes all the talk of “the magic of the FA Cup”: Lincoln City playing away to (what we would call “at”) Arsenal on Saturday.

Tiny Lincoln City will play Arsenal at The Emirates Stadium this weekend.

Lincoln City is a non-league (meaning not fully professional) team that has made it all the way to the last eight, so this is essentially, oh, Macon, Georgia playing at the New York Mets. In the last round, Arsenal had to play at Sutton United, in the same league as Lincoln, and the game drew international attention for these massive superstars having to play in a tiny stadium on artificial surface, and Arsenal’s manager doing his pregame interview with the BBC in a room that had a cot in it!

That cot became a symbol of sadness, however. It was where Sutton’s backup keeper, the 46-year-old and quite heavy SOMEBODY, slept three nights a week while he was working for the club. He was seen at the club bar at halftime (!) and then eating a meat pie on the sidelines during the second half.

This, of course, attracted massive attention, social media exploded, and the BBC announcers said he should be Man of the Match just for that … until it came out that there had been a bet on some website, at 8-to-1 odds, that he would eat a pie during the game. Well, any connection between gambling and players is a big deal, so the poor chap had to resign his position, and the FA is investigating.

Oh, and Arsenal won, 2-0. It was a shame Sutton couldn’t deliver a goal for its fans and the public, although as you can see in the highlights that they hit the crossbar late. My, the scenes had that one gone in!

So give a watch this weekend, and maybe some FA Cup magic will happen. Then tune in Monday to see who is playing who in the semifinals at Wembley!

Learn more about English soccer.

You might also want to follow me on Facebook or subscribe to my newsletter to keep up with my footy wanderings.