FA Cup

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FA Cup's magic returns once again

FOX Soccer News: Preview of the FA Cup's third round fixtures.
FOX Soccer News: Preview of the FA Cup's third round fixtures.
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Leander Schaerlaeckens

Leander Schaerlaeckens has written about soccer for The New York Times, The Guardian, ESPN The Magazine and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter.

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The English FA Cup is the fairest competition in the world.

No other tournament in the sports world is quite so equitable. And consequently, it stands as the great counter-argument to a long-held American fallacy most vocally uttered by 1980s Republican party colossus – and former Buffalo Bills quarterback – Jack Kemp. In 1986, when the United States Congress, of which Kemp was a member for 18 years, debated a resolution in support of the USA’s bid to stage a World Cup, he came to the floor and spoke out against the initiative.

"Football is democratic, capitalism," he said. "Whereas soccer is a European, socialist [sport]."

The assertion that soccer is socialist – made by more prominent Americans than just Kemp – is most resoundingly contradicted by the FA Cup, the oldest cup tournament in the soccer world, having been contested continuously since 1871.

There are no barriers to entry into the FA Cup, which continues this weekend with 32 games including Manchester United vs. West Ham (live, Saturday, FOX, 12 p.m. ET) other than your team being located in England or Wales; having played in a national cup tournament in at least one prior season; and having access to a stadium, however small. You and I could enter the world’s greatest domestic tournament – awash in history and prestige, displayed in museums with grainy footage, yellowed pictures and crusty old jerseys – if only we gathered up nine like-minded peers, started our own club and registered it with the Football Association.

That’s the crux of the FA Cup’s magic. By embracing all comers and putting them on an even playing field, the FA Cup makes for a spectacle that cuts to the very heart of sport and, not to put too fine a point on it, the larger human condition. In this tournament, average guys like us, with jobs and families and responsibilities and 30-year fixed-rate mortgages, get a chance to do extraordinary things.

And average guys indeed to enter. A whopping 758 clubs entered this season and the tournament is perennially filled with upsets. The underdog has a real chance, and every year a so-called "giant-killer" goes on a Cinderella run. Imagine the NCAA tournament, only with your local YMCA pickup team getting the chance to knock off Kentucky. Or, to use a baseball analogy, picture a national tournament wherein Major League Baseball franchises are pitted against not only minor league teams, but beer league teams as well.

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Inevitably, the natural order is upset. In 2011, for instance, fourth-tier Crawley Town, a tiny club whose stadium seats just 3,300, knocked off two second-tier clubs before stranding against a Premier League team in the Fifth Round, among the last 16 standing.

For the smallest clubs and its players, the exposure and prize money that come as the spoils of a dream run can be life-altering. And for the finalists, there is one of the highest honors in British life – to play in London’s Wembley Stadium, the holiest of soccer grounds.

The single-elimination tournament begins in earnest in the Third Round, scheduled for this Saturday and Sunday, when all 64 remaining teams will face off. Much attention will go to some early matchups of EPL titans – brought together by an unseeded draw. Manchester United will travel to West Ham (live, Saturday, FOX, 12 p.m. ET). Southampton will face Chelsea (live, Saturday,  FOX Soccer, 10 a.m. ET). Swansea will host Arsenal (live, Sunday, FOX Soccer, 8.30 a.m. ET).

But equally intriguing are the contests of the fourth- and fifth-tier teams still alive, who make this tournament what it is. Mansfield Town of the Blue Square Bet Premier League -- that’s the fifth division -- will host mighty Liverpool (10.30 a.m. ET on Sunday) while the generously labeled semi-professionals of Hastings United, a 7th-tier team from the Isthmian League that has never drawn more than 4,888 people to a game or paid over $13,000 for a player, faces storied second-tier Middlesbrough.

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Yet the clubs are all in the same boat, in a sense. This tournament has lost a tad of luster in the last decade or two – it was once the most important domestic trophy in England -- it nevertheless remains a key piece of hardware for most clubs outside of the Big Six.

It’s also surprisingly attainable: to hoist the trophy, a team need to win 14 consecutive games. With eight rounds already played, just six more wins are needed for somebody to snatch the title coveted and contested by so very many in this unfettered free-for-all.

In sum, the FA Cup offers the shortest road to glory to anybody looking for it. All comers will be given a chance to test their product and compete. If they earn it, success will be theirs. What could be more capitalist than that?

Amy Lawrence is a contributing writer for FOXSoccer.com who has been writing about the game since USA `94, covering the Premier League, Champions League, European leagues and international soccer.

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