I was watching the Northern Iowa / Texas A&M game this last weekend, and I had the stunning realization that I had been held captive by a game that meant literally nothing to me. My family has no ties to either college. I’ve never been to College Station, or to Cedar Falls, (Yes, I had to look that up) Iowa. The only thing that I know about either is Johnny Manziel went to A&M and Ali Farokhmanesh attended UNI. Which, yes, is another March Madness memory. Simply put, I had no reason to lose three hours of my life to this game. And yet I did, because of the insanity that it encompassed. It’s the same reason I had my friend pull over the car the day before during the Middle Tennessee / Michigan State game. There are very few times in life that the underdog goes up against the big name and wins. For most of America, we stand captivated around TVs in March because we know that the upset can happen, the shock can be real, and the underdog can have a shining moment in the sun. Every year, it happens. For the U.S., it’s basketball. For the rest of the world? It’s domestic soccer cups.
I grew up in a basketball family, but also grew up in the UK. So when I couldn’t binge watch the NCAA tournament, I found the next best thing in the FA Cup. What makes March Madness great? 68 teams in the field, with a chance of anyone beating anyone else. Sure, a 1-16 upset has never happened. But it could. And that’s sort of how the FA Cup works too. Every team in the country gets a shot at it, at least through the first 10 levels of the FA. For context, the record number of competitors was 763 in 2011-2012. That is an absurd number of competitors, and means that the tournament takes the entire FA calendar from August to May.
Perhaps more importantly, though, it offers the opportunity for the biggest upsets. Sure, when a team down the bottom of the Premiership wins a close game against a top-4 squad, there is excitement. But the Premiership, to me, has always lacked the urgency of a knockout league. If Man City can lose a game in October, but still make up the ground later in the season, then the immediacy of the game is lost.
The FA Cup, though? It is unforgiving, unrelenting, and sometimes magical. I still remember Brentford coming back from 2-0 down to beat Chelsea. At Stamford Bridge. The country went nuts; it was a huge upset. Every year it happens, and the format of the tournament makes for good chances every year. Because the later rounds are two legs, the underdogs get two chances, not just one. While I’m not suggesting the entirety of the NCAA tournament should do this, getting to play the Final Four games twice, and the winner going through on aggregate scoring? That might make an exciting tournament even better.
Whether Brentford over Chelsea in 2014, Wrexham over Arsenal in 1992 (quite literally the second best team in the country against probably the worst), or Hereford over Newcastle in 1972, there have always been great moments in the FA Cup because of the unpredictability inherent in the competition. That’s why it’s such a shame that some of the top teams don’t pay it the same attention as they once did. As an example, Liverpool this year played a ‘barely recognizable side’ in a third round tie against Exeter, a team three leagues below. Many of the upper flight teams simply don’t see the point, and that is a true shame.
The FA Cup adds drama to the league outside of the promotion and relegation battle, at all levels. It provides a huge financial lift to smaller sides, and can even keep teams out of sheer destitution. And it continues to provide unforgettable moments. As long as that is true, there will always be a place for the FA Cup in soccer, just like there is a place for the NCAA tournament alongside the NBA. Sure, the quality of play might not be the best, but the possibility for magic? That is something simply irreplaceable.