The FA Cup is quite possibly the world's coolest sporting competition. Think Hoosiers, but soccer, in England, with 763 teams. Every accredited soccer team in England—from pub teams (read: beer league) all the way up to the best Premier League clubs—enters the tournament. The small clubs play six rounds of qualifying matches, the winners of which earn the right to compete with the big boys.
Unlike the NCAA tournament, the American event to which the event is most often compared, the FA Cup has no seeding system. Instead, opponents are determined by a random draw, a wrinkle which makes it easier for the tournament's minnows to reach the later rounds and sets up a whole mess of David-on-Goliath action. In 1992, for example, tiny Wrexham, which finished 91st overall the season before, knocked off defending English champions Arsenal.
This season's Wrexham (or Hickory High, if you will) is Crawley Town, which toils in the fourth
division. They are the underdogs every fan should love, except that everyone hates them. Their Jimmy Chitwood is 18-goal scorer Matt Tubbs. Their Gene Hackman is prickly manager Steve Evans, known for nearly starting brawls on the sidelines. (Is there really anything to hate here?) Next up, Crawley Town will try to upset Premiership side Stoke City. All that's missing is Shooter wandering onto the pitch drunk.
How the FA Cup saved Sir Alex Ferguson: Once upon a time, before the 23 major trophies and the knighting, Manchester United boss Alex Ferguson was about to be fired. The team had slogged through three mediocre years under his leadership, and Ferguson's last hope for salvation came in the form of 1990's FA Cup. In the third round, Manchester United drew a red-hot Nottingham Forrest club. The situation looked dire until United's 20-year-old Mark Robins poked in the game's only goal The rest, of course is history: Man U went on to win the tournament, and Ferguson kept his job and built the club into the most dominant force in English soccer. Robins, on the other hand, went on to play 15 more seasons of professional soccer, but was never more famous than when he saved Sir Alex.
The curious fate of the first FA Cup trophy: The FA Cup is the oldest soccer competition in the world, but the FA Cup trophy isn't. That's because the original trophy was stolen from a Birmingham shoe shop in 1895, and never seen again. Nearly sixty years later, in some sort of soccer deathbed confession, a man admitted he'd stolen the trophy, melted it down, and used it to make counterfeit half-crown coins. Positively Dickensian. The current trophy was first presented in 1992, and is now supposed to be called, along with the tournament itself, the Budweiser FA Cup. Doesn't quite capture the appropriate sense of roguish history.
How the FA Cup rehabilitated a Nazi: In 1949, Manchester City signed a promising young goalie named Bert Trautmann, who'd spent the previous season playing for a semi-pro team in Liverpool and the four years prior to that wearing a uniform with a swastika on its sleeve. A German paratrooper during World War II, Trautmann was captured five times by Allied soldiers, only to escape each time. Many of City's fans threatened to boycott matches unless Trautmann was released, which the team declined to do. The clamor quickly died down after Trautmann emerged as one of the best keepers in England. In 1956, he led City to the FA Cup final, where they met Birmingham. City held a 3-1 lead with 15 minutes to go when Trautmann was knocked unconscious and sustained a neck injury after colliding with a Birmingham player's knee. He elected to stay in the game and saved a flurry of Birmingham chances in the final minutes, as City held on to win the cup. Three days later, the neck injury was revealed to be cracked vertebrae, which Trautmann was lucky to have survived, let alone play through. Now he's got a statue at the Man City museum.
Colossal FA Cup caveat: The FA Cup may be one of the world's most prestigious tournaments, but it doesn't offer the same financial windfall as the Premier League or the Champions League and isn't always taken as seriously. Teams atop the Premier League table will sometimes bench star players in FA matches to ensure they are fresh for games that count toward Champions League qualification. Teams at the bottom do the same to avoid relegation. While this sounds like a bad thing (and sometimes it is), it can also lead to shocking eliminations of top teams, and keeps the tournament from being dominated by the same clubs every year. In the past four years alone, underdogs Stoke City, Everton, Cardiff City, and Portsmouth (twice) have all advanced to the cup final. This years top candidates to challenge the big boys for the title are Everton (fresh off their victory over Manchester City), Norwich City, and Stoke City.
Wimbledon's Crazy Gang: The "Crazy Gang" was the name bestowed on the raucous players for now-defunct Wimbledon F.C., which had risen dramatically from the lower divisions in the late '70s and mid '80s. Recognize the guy to the left? Before he beat up people on film, Vinnie Jones beat them up on the pitch as Wimbledon's midfield hard man. The hero of the 1988 final against Liverpool, however, would be Dave Beasant, a lanky mop-haired goalkeeper who made history when he became the first man to stop a penalty in the championship game. John Aldridge was the man to take the shot. And Beasant knew that Aldridge had gone right on 11 previous—and successful—penalties. The keeper timed his save perfectly and gave Wimbledon its only major title. In 2001, the club moved to Milton Keynes and the Crazy Gang moved into history.