Everyone knows that most nations have two soccer competitions - their domestic league pyramid, and their cup competition, which is generally open to every professional or semi-professional team in the country. England being England, though, they have two cup competitions, and there's been some confusion lately over what they are, what they're called, and how they run. I figured I'd take a few minutes, as a service to the newer/less cup-savvy fans out there, to explain the English cup competitions, how they came to be, how they differ, and all that stuff.
1. The FA Cup
First Contested: 1871-72
Current Holders: Wigan Athletic
This is the oldest Cup competition in the world, and to be honest my favorite tournament Arsenal are in every year. It's a single-elimination tournament which is open to every team in England - the Premier League, all of the Football League teams, and the five tiers of amateur/semi-pro/Sunday League teams throughout England and Wales (Scotland has its own Cup competition). It's run by the FA, the sport's governing body in England, and any English or Welsh team can enter - all a team has to do is send the FA a check for the entry fee (as little as £75 for amateur clubs) and you're in.
The qualifying rounds of the FA Cup start in mid-August, with the club teams and the smaller professional teams fighting it out in those qualifying rounds until early November.
November sees the first round of the FA Cup itself, which features the 80 teams not in the Premier League or the Championship that have survived the qualifying rounds or been exempted into the first round (Leagues One and Two get exempted into the first round). The first and second rounds winnow that 80 down to 20, and then the third round sees the 44 Premier League and Championship teams join the fun.
From there on, you know the story - there's a draw after every round, win and you move on, shiny tin pot at the end, etc. The final is, of course, at Wembley, except for the years from 2001-2006 when it was in Cardiff (chosen because it had a big enough stadium and was guaranteed to be a neutral venue), due to the construction of the new bland corporate Wembley.
FUN FACTS ABOUT THE FA CUP:
1. Remember when Arsenal lost to Bradford in the Capitol One Cup last year? That sucked, right? Well, go back to 1992. That year, Arsenal, 1991 winners of the First Division, faced Wrexham, last-place team in the Fourth Division, in the third round of the FA Cup. Guess what happened?
2. In the entire history of the FA Cup, there has only ever been one instance of a First Division/Premier League team not taking part at all. In 1999-2000, Manchester United, Cup winners the previous year, earned a spot in the World Club Cup as a result of winning the Champions League in 1999, so the FA asked them to participate in the WCC at the expense of the FA Cup, in order to promote England's ultimately failed bid to host the 2006 World Cup. Darlington was selected to participate in the FA Cup in United's absence, and lost in the fourth round.
2. The Capital One Cup (The League Cup)
First Contested: 1960-61
Current Holders: Swansea City
The League Cup was invented almost purely as an exercise in marketing. Once all top-flight English grounds had floodlights, the Football League, which at the time was the governing body of Divisions 1-4 in England, wanted a midweek, nighttime tournament so it could promote itself without any competition from FA Cup matchdays. This is why England have two Cup competitions when most nations only have one.
The League built the League Cup tournament as a way of doing this - contrasted with the more open nature of the FA Cup, it was originally (and is still) only open to the 92 teams in the top four divisions of the English pyramid. It is the same single-elimination format as the FA Cup, but it was always viewed as a "lesser" competition, even prior to the Premier League using it as a way to blood young talent, and it wasn't until the League Cup started awarding a European place (currently the winners get a spot in the Europa League) that the tournament gained a whole lot of credibility.
The League Cup's quest for said credibility has led it to make many changes over its history, primarily with its name - it has been sponsored since 1982, and has been known, in order, as the Milk Cup, the Littlewoods Challenge Cup, the Rumbelows Cup, the Coca-Cola Cup, the Worthington Cup, the Carling Cup, and the Capital One Cup. It has also changed its calendar in the last several years - in order to carve out a distinct identity, the League Cup has gone away from a traditional season-long calendar, and now plays all but the semi-final and final rounds in the first calendar year of a season; this year's quarter finals are the week of December 16, and the final is in early March.
FUN FACT ABOUT THE CAPITAL ONE CUP:
In 1993, Arsenal beat Sheffield Wednesday to win the then-Coca Cola Cup. In the post-game celebrations, Tony Adams picked up Steve Morrow and attempted to carry him around the pitch to celebrate; Adams slipped, Morrow fell and broke his arm.