Other | May 15, 2023

A beginner's guide to the FA Cup

By Harry Bazley

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As one of the most prestigious domestic cup competitions in the world, the FA Cup has captured the hearts and imaginations of football fans all over the globe. But for beginners, the world of the FA Cup can seem a little confusing.

With 20 teams from across the English football pyramid, including Premier League teams such as Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester United, and Tottenham Hotspur, competing for the famous trophy, it can be difficult to know where to start.

In this beginner's guide, we'll explain everything you need to know about the FA Cup.

What is the FA Cup?

The FA Cup is a knockout football competition played annually in England. It is open to all clubs in the top 10 levels of the English football pyramid, including the Football League and the Premier League - one of the most competitive leagues in the world.

A brief history of the FA Cup

The Football Association Challenge Cup, commonly known as the FA Cup, is the oldest knockout competition in English football. It was first held in 1871-1872 and was contested by 15 teams. The tournament was created to promote football and encourage teams to play the sport under the rules established by the Football Association (FA).

The first FA Cup final was played on March 16, 1872, between Wanderers and Royal Engineers at The Oval in London, with Wanderers winning 1-0. The FA Cup quickly grew in popularity and became an important part of the English football calendar. Over the years, more and more teams participated in the competition, and it expanded to include teams from all levels of English football.

The FA Cup has produced many memorable moments throughout its history, including the "Matthews Final" in 1953, where Stanley Matthews led Blackpool to a 4-3 win over Bolton Wanderers, and the "Giant Killings" of lower-league teams beating top-tier teams, such as Wimbledon's shock victory over Liverpool in the 1988 final.

The FA Cup has also been affected by various historical events. It was suspended during World War I and II, and during the latter, special competitions were held for teams made up of wartime personnel. The Hillsborough disaster in 1989, which resulted in the deaths of 96 Liverpool fans, led to increased safety measures being implemented in football stadiums, including the installation of all-seater stadiums.

Today, the FA Cup remains an important part of English football, and teams from all levels of the English football pyramid compete for the trophy each year. It is viewed as a symbol of tradition and history, and winning the FA Cup is still considered a major achievement in English football.

How does the FA Cup work?

The competition starts in August or September with the qualifying rounds, where teams from lower levels of the football pyramid play against other teams in the league to earn a spot in the first round proper. The first round proper involves 32 teams from the Football League and the National League, and it is where the teams from the Premier League and the Championship enter the competition.

The Cup then progresses through subsequent rounds, with each round being decided by a single match, usually played at the home ground of one of the teams. If the match is drawn, a replay is played at the opposing team's ground.

The tournament stages can be broken down like so:

Qualifying Stage:

  • Extra Preliminary Round

  • Preliminary Round

  • First-Fifth Qualifying Rounds

Competition Proper:

  • First-Fifth Round Proper

  • Quarter-finals

  • Semi-finals

  • Final

Where is the FA Cup played?

The FA Cup is played at various stadiums throughout England, including the Wembley Stadium in London, which has hosted the FA Cup Final since its reconstruction in 2007. The earlier rounds of the FA Cup are played at different venues across the country, depending on the teams involved and their home grounds.

Which teams can play in the FA Cup?

As previously mentioned, the competition is open to all clubs in the top 10 levels of the English football pyramid. This includes teams in the Premier League, the Football League, and non-league teams from the National League, National League North, and National League South.

However, only teams in the top four levels of the pyramid, which includes the Premier League and the Football League, automatically qualify for the First Round Proper. Non-league teams must first progress through several qualifying rounds to reach the First Round Proper.

Which teams have been successful in the FA Cup?

The most successful team in the history of the FA Cup is Arsenal, who have won the competition 14 times. Other successful teams include Manchester United and Chelsea, who have each won the trophy 12 times, and Tottenham Hotspur, who have won it eight times. Aston Villa and West Ham have both won the trophy seven times, while Leicester City and Manchester City have each won it six times.

What are the benefits of winning the FA Cup?

Aside from the prestige and history that comes with winning the FA Cup, the competition also offers teams the opportunity to qualify for European competitions. The winners of the FA Cup qualify for the group stage of the Europa League, while also receiving a substantial financial reward. In addition, the FA Cup winners are guaranteed a place in the following season's Community Shield, which is the traditional curtain-raiser to the English Premier League season.

Why is the FA Cup important?

The FA Cup is one of the most beloved domestic cup competitions in the world and is steeped in history and tradition. Winning the FA Cup is a significant achievement for any team, regardless of their status or league position. It provides an opportunity for smaller clubs to pit themselves against the biggest teams in the country and can often lead to giant-killing upsets.

The FA Cup also offers teams the opportunity to qualify for European competitions, including the UEFA Champions League and the Europa League. If the winners of the FA Cup have already qualified for these competitions through their league position, the team that finishes in the highest position in the Premier League that has not already qualified will take their place.

Now you know exactly what the FA Cup is and just how it works, why not check out our other sports guides here.