In the final Harry Potter book, Harry, Ron and Hermione are trapped in the Lestrange's vault at Gringotts, trying to Helga Hufflepuff's cup. However, the vault is cursed and when the cup drops, it produces hundreds of identical cups.
Stay with me...I'm going somewhere.
Learning about football can sometimes feel like an exercise in sorting through cups. Depending on the country, the cups include Champions League, Carling Cup, FA Cup, Copa Libertadores, MLS Cup, Copa Sudamericana, CAF Confederation Cup and on and on and on. This doesn't even include national competitions such as the Gold Cup or the Africa Cup of Nations.
To keep things simple, and because this is a blog about fans of English football residing in the US, we'll focus on the cups that English football clubs chase: The Football League Cup, FA Cup and Champions League.
*American readers take note: a "tie" and a "match" are the same thing in British English, although from what I've determined "tie" is only used in the context of cup games. "Draw" is used when Americans typically use "tie".
THE FOOTBALL LEAGUE CUP
Also goes by: League Cup, Carling Cup
Formerly known as: Milk Cup, Littlewood Challenge Cup, Rumbelows Cup, Coca-Cola Cup, Worthington Cup
Who plays: the 20 teams of the Premier League, the 24 teams of the Champions League, the 24 teams of League One, and the 24 teams of League Two
Current Holders: Manchester United, who beat Tottenham last season
Format: Typically seven rounds, although in one year a preliminary round was used, but I won't pretend to understand why. The 72 lower clubs start it off, the Premier sides not in European competition start in round two, and the ones who qualified for Europe are slotted into round three. For the first five rounds, the teams play one single-elimination match, with extra time and penalty shootouts in the case of a draw. For some odd reason, in the sixth round (semi-finals) the four teams play one match home, one match away. If the teams are drawn on aggregate goals (the two matches added together) at the end of 90 minutes in the second match, the game goes into extra time. If they are still drawn, the team with the most away goals goes through to the final. If that number is the same, the game goes to a penalty shootout. Headache yet? The final takes place in neutral territory, currently at Wembley.
Importance: Lowest of the cups in terms of prestige. Many of the bigger teams in the Premier League send out younger or reserve players in the matches, particularly when playing against lower-league sides.
Winners get: Assurance of European play with a slot in the Europa League, a shiny silver trophy
Where are we now: Aston Villa (!!!) take on Manchester United this Sunday at 3pm GMT. Wonder who we're cheering on?
THE FA CUP
Also goes by: The Football Association Challenge Cup
Formerly known as: This cup, begun in 1871, has never had another name!
Who plays: Any football club in levels 1-10 in the Football Association, provided that they played in the FA Cup, FA Trophy, or FA Vase competition the previous year (so if a club starts up at level 9 for instance, they can't play in the FA Cup their first season)
Current Holders: Chelsea, who beat Everton last season
Format: Fourteen single-elimination rounds. There are six qualifying rounds for the lowest-ranked nations, from extra preliminary to preliminary up through the fourth qualifying round. The 32 winners from these six rounds meet League One and League Two in the seventh round, which is called the First Round or First Round Proper because English football wants to make you cry from frustration. After two rounds they've knocked those teams down to twenty, at which point Championship and Premier League sides jump in at the Third Round Proper, making it 64 teams in the tournament. In this tournament, the bigger clubs don't start playing until January, and the final is held in May after league play has finished. The matches are decided via a draw, and the winner goes on to the next draw. However if a match is drawn (English football also likes to confuse you by using the same word to mean different things. Please don't give up.) a replay occurs at the stadium of the team that had previously been scheduled away. Should that 90 minutes end in a draw once again, it goes to extra time and then penalties. The FA Cup semi-finals and final are all held at neutral stadiums, again this currently means Wembley.
Importance: Fairly high, but the Champions League is still more highly coveted.
Winners get: A slightly tarnished trophy with team ribbons attached and a trip to European play in the Europa League.
Where are we now: In the quarter-finals: Chelsea v Stoke City, Fulham v Tottenham Hotspur, Portsmouth v Birmingham City, Reading v Aston Villa(!) to be played March 6-7.
THE CHAMPIONS LEAGUE
Also goes by: UEFA Champions League, European Cup
Formerly known as: European Champion Clubs' Cup, European Champions' Cup
Who plays: Oh goodness, are you ready for this one? 32 teams from 52 UEFA member nations enter into a round robin tournament. The number of teams entered from each individual country is determined by the "UEFA coefficient", which I am confident you can look up on Wikipedia. Basically the top three ranked nations get four slots in the cup, the next three get three slots, 7-15 get two slots, and the rest one slot. 22 of these teams are automatically entered into the tournament through high enough qualification in their national leagues. The other ten slots are decided through smaller qualifying tournies.
Current Holders: Barcelona, who beat United last season.
Format: The 32 teams are divided into eight groups of four, with each team meeting the other three teams at both home and away. Teams from the same nation cannot be placed in the same group. The top two teams from each group go on to the final sixteen, with group winners playing other group's runners ups. These ties are two-legged, home and away, with aggregate goals determining who goes through to the quarter-finals. Once again, away goals are the tipping point. The final is a single match whose location rotates through UEFA member cities, this year to be held in Madrid.
Importance: More or less the most highly regarded championship in the world, at the club level anyway.
Winners get: €7 million, a shiny shiny cup and qualification for FIFA's Club World Cup (go look that one up yourselves, thanks)
Where are we now: In the first leg of the final sixteen. Chelsea, Arsenal and United all remain in the competition, but Liverpool finished third in the group stage and was sent down to the Europa League.
Final note: The Europa League might be called the 'second most prestigious league in Europe' but that's mostly bullshit. The winners don't even get a real cup. All Europa does is let teams see a bit of Europe and tire them out.