Youíve probably never heard of the FA Cup. The English call it the greatest sporting tournament in the world, but then again we assume that everything we do is the best because itís often the oldest.
Itís a great benefit of being such an old nation, regardless of the fascinating innovations of the modern world we can normally scorn them as Ďnew fangledí and Ďvulgarí because we have something similar that weíve been doing since before many countries were discovered or dreamt of their own existence.
The Football Association Cup (FA Cup) was first played in the 1871 / 1872 season and attracted fifteen entrants. This soccer tournament quickly grew into an English institution of which dreams were made. Some of my earliest memories involve the excitement and anticipation of FA Cup Final day. A family occasion, even those who arenít interested in sport will sit down and watch two of the greatest teams in our nation play one another for the converted title. It is a day of glamour, tradition and sporting celebration. Think of the Super Bowl on a smaller scale without the glitz and youíre just about there.
FA Cup half-time
Cup Final day is in May at the end of the regular football season, but almost a year before the FA Cup competition begins. This year 687 teams entered the tournament from across England. Obviously all the 92 professional soccer teams enter as standard, but the other places are made up of tiny non-league and club sides.
There are several qualifying rounds to get through in the summer before reaching the first round proper of the cup. However at this point the non-league part timers can be drawn in matches against professional sides and in the third round the Premier League sides join in. This is why the cup is magic, because potentially a team made of butchers, bakers and candles stick makers, who donít get paid a penny for their efforts, can end up playing the multi-million pound Manchester United, whose star players probably earn more in a week than the entire income their lowly opponents club make through ticket sales in a year.
Okay, normally the underdogs lose, but we all love the cup for those few times when they donít. There is nothing that makes me happier than seeing a bunch of part-timers humbling a well-oiled slick multi million-pound corporation.
This weekend I noticed that the team where I grew up had got to the first round of the FA Cup and were playing at home. An old friend and I decided to travel from London up to Bishopís Stortford, which is about 25 miles north of the capital. The opponents were in fact even lowlier than part-time soccer club Bishopís Stortford. Neither Adam nor I had been to see Bishopís Stortford play for many years. However as we walked towards the small stadium it all came flooding back. I want to tell you what this match was like because I think it is something quite English. A Premier League soccer match is similar to a baseball match or NFL encounter because it is a huge well-organised stadium full of spectators, the game on the pitch could be anything. If you want to know about football then look inside the gates of a non-league ground in England.
Crowd filing through turnstile, braving the bitter cold to see the game
We queued for a few minutes, the sun was trying to come out, and it was bitterly cold. Even wearing a coat and hat, I was starting to wonder whether Iíd made the right decision. The crowd were filed through a small turnstile and I handed over my nine pounds ($16 USD) and gained entry. Suddenly I saw why people came to the FA Cup at places like this. The ground was small and only had one small-seated stand that had a capacity of a few hundred.
At both ends of the ground were small standing terraces covered by corrugated iron roofs, on the far side was enough room for people to stand four or five deep. The ground was compact but was filling up fast with fifteen minutes until kick off. The spectators were virtually on top of the pitch, so close to the action it was unbelievable. There was a carnival atmosphere in the ground, fans from both sides dressed up in hats and scarves emblazoned with their team mottos, crests and colours. Young and old alike stood watching the players warm up; there was a sense of great excitement rippling around the ground. There were several thousand people now in the ground and it didnít look like many more could fit.
Fans drinking it up with their plastic cups
Football goes together with beer and pies and so Adam and I headed for the bar. After being issued with plastic bottles of beer so we couldnít smash them over an opposing fans head we took up our positions behind the goal and tucked into our pies. Generally, the fans stand behind the goal that their team is attacking and move around to the other end at half time. Itís the best place to be if you want to pick experience the way that the teams fans live week in week out. The chanting began just before kick off and continued for much of the thrilling encounter. The chants werenít imaginative, generally focussed around being Ďfamousí, Ďgreatí and Ďsuperí. These chants are quite hypnotic and although relatively impartial as an observer, I couldnít help but find myself joining in.
The darker side seemed to kick in when Bishopís Stortford starting losing. First, it was the referee, who was called every name under the sun, then the opposition goalkeeper because he was closest to the fans. Some young children began spitting at the goalkeeper and shouting obscenities. Now, Iím a man of the world, but Iíve rarely heard so many swear words used in such a short time as I did that afternoon. This behaviour illustrated the real desire of the fans for their team to succeed but perhaps show a rather Orwellian hold that such an ultimately meaningless pursuit as football has over them.
The match was a thriller, ending five goals to three to the away side. The Bishopís Stortford made a late come back and the entire crowd dreamt of some FA Cup magic changing their fortunes. Despite a last ditched effort from the brave home team, the final whistle blew and the team and their fans were resigned to defeat. Surrounded by the scent of cheap aftershave and underage drinkers realisation began to set in for the home that the FA Cup dream was over for another season.
Such extremes of sweet and sour at the other end of the ground the visiting team danced in front of the thousand or so travelling supporters who had made their way to the match. The home fans filed towards the gates with their heads bowed. Some swore, others smoked cigarettes, some did both whilst opening another beer. The atmosphere had changed so much from the great belief that existed at the start of the match. The away team were in the hat for the second round draw and could potentially end up playing a high-ranking professional team and enjoying the financial rewards and acclaim that would come with that. For the home team it was back to the day job.
Late in the FA Cup game
Football was meant to be like this. A local sport played by local people. Today people support teams from the other side of the country and travel to see them, paying astronomical prices for tickets and merchandise. There is something quite honest about this lower level of football. Yes it is not without itís social problems, but on the other hand there is no need for segregation of fans at the lower level whereas in the Premier League no one would dream of letting home and away supporters wander around together. The people in the game I watched were playing for the love of the game, not for millions of dollars a year, but because they want to be the best they can, impress their fans and ultimately fulfil every English boyís dream of playing in the FA Cup.