This piece was written for the programme of the FA Cup tie between Prescot Cables and City of Liverpool and a slightly amended version appeared in the programme of Ashford Town (Middlesex) v Wembley.
Tonight is special for both clubs, their players, coaches, administrators and supporters. Not just because it is a local derby but because the match takes place in The Emirates FA Cup.
The FA Cup is unique. Having been contested since the 1871-72 season, it is the oldest football tournament in the world. Featuring more than 700 clubs from the top eleven tiers of English football, it is also the most inclusive competition in the country.
The FA Cup is wonderful; it is not perfect. It cannot be right that only 32 non-league clubs can play in the First Round Proper, particularly when the top 24 only have to play one match to reach it thanks to changes made to the seedings around 15 years ago.
Perhaps the French have got it right? When the Coupe de France was established in 1917, it was made open to every club in France and its overseas territories. As a result, it can attract up to 7,000 entries each season!
The logistical nightmare that could be created by such a large competition is handled by allocating a set number of places in the Seventh Round (at which the professional clubs enter) to each region. If a particular area has more clubs paricipating than can be whittled down to the required number in six rounds, then that region simply adds qualifying rounds as required. It is not unheard of for teams to play ten mactches (or more) to reach Round Seven.
At the same time, a far flung overseas territory such as New Caledonia might only have one place in the Seventh Round. In such a scenario, it makes sense simply to run a local cup competition and then send the winner into the National Competition.
Even when the ‘big boys’ come in, life is not made easy for them. When there are two or more levels between clubs, the lowest ranked automatically plays at home (or the bigger ground of their choice). There’s an argument that this rule encourages upsets and Calais did reach the Final as an amateur club in 2000. Yet there might be something in having some sort of qualifying criteria, if only to reduce the number of potential mismatches. And the idea of Paris Saint Germain playing on the equivalent of a park pitch is, frankly, scary. In theory, it could happen although realistically a tie involving an amateur side against such giants would almost certainly be moved.
In South America, where the grand tradition of Cup Football is not woven into the game’s culture as it is here, the Peruvian FA have taken a different approach to their competition. In Peru, the Cup is played for by the clubs at the lower levels of the local game. But no-one fields their Reserves in the Peruvian Cup because the rewards are unreal; the Cup Winner goes straight into the First Division, while the runner up receives an automatic elevation to the second tier.
With such high stakes, it’s perhaps unsurprising that the competition is not a straight knockout tournament. Instead, the Copa Peru consists of a series of group stages, starting at district level and working up to a National Stage which comprises 50 clubs, who each play six matches against opponents in nearby regions. A single League Table is calculated from the games in this stage and the top eight clubs automatically qualify for the last 16 stage, with the clubs ranked 9-24 playing off to join them. Everyone else is knocked out.
Once the field has been reduced to 16 clubs, these teams play each other in knockout matches until only four remain. These ‘finalists’ play a round-robin competition in the capital, Lima, for the trophy and that coveted place in the top flight.
The Peruvian model doesn’t have the drama and emotion created by The FA Cup and it’s tradition of giant-killings, but it is always relevant because of the prizes that are on offer to clubs who do well.
Although all the Home Nations have had national Cup competitions since the late 19th Century, the idea was slower to take off abroad; for example, the Copa Peru was not launched until 1967. However, one of the oldest national tournaments outside the UK is played in a country not usually considered to have a long football tradition – the United States of America.
The US Open Cup has been played for since 1913-14 and while it has been dominated by Major League Soccer clubs in recent seasons, no club has so far won it more than five times with Bethlehem Steel and Maccabi Los Angeles currently the most successful sides in the competition’s history.
Unlike our FA Cup, the US Open Cup has a relatively small field of around 100 entrants, comprised of the professional clubs from MLS and the Leagues below it, plus a number of amateur clubs for whom League success provides a route into the tournament.
However, like our competition and the Coupe de France, the US Open Cup is a single-elimination tournament meaning that the likes of Los Angeles Galaxy face the same stark reality as tonight’s teams do: lose, and you’re out!