In the United States, they are called Cinderellas. In Britain, the name for a long-shot team that goes on a surprising run in a big tournament also comes from fairy tales, though it is somewhat less benign. The phrase that’s used is giant killer.
And right now is a boom time for giant killers.
When the draw was made for the last 16 of the F.A. Cup on Monday, it included two teams that play in the fifth tier of English soccer, which means they are not even part of the Football League, which includes only the top four tiers. Since the league was founded in 1888, this is the first time that two teams of such low ranking have together made it this far in the F.A. Cup. Given the ever-widening gap between haves and have-nots in soccer, it is all the more remarkable.
One of the 16 is Sutton United, a team from South London that, a year ago, was playing in the sixth tier. Sutton’s run to the final 16 includes wins over fourth-tier Cheltenham, third-tier A.F.C. Wimbledon and, on Sunday, second-tier Leeds United, a former Champions League semifinalist. It is Sutton United’s first visit to the round of 16.
Sutton benefited from the approach Leeds took to Sunday’s game. Leeds is concentrating on trying to win promotion to the Premier League and rolled out a team to play Sutton that included many backups and youngsters. Still, even Sutton’s official Twitter account could not quite believe the 1-0 victory, posting: “Wow, wow, wow.”
The other giant killer is Lincoln City, from the East Midlands. Lincoln beat third-tier Oldham and two second-tier teams, Ipswich and, on Saturday, Brighton, which missed out on promotion to the Premier League last season only on goal difference.
Sutton and Lincoln City have now advanced further in this season’s F.A. Cup than Liverpool, a big shot in the Premier League. Liverpool was knocked out by Wolverhampton Wanderers on Saturday.
Only nine times since World War II has a team so lowly made it this far. All seven of the previous teams lost in the round of 16. That could happen again this time, since Sutton and Lincoln City face much sterner tests in that round. Lincoln will play Burnley, a Premier League team, although a modest one. Sutton, meanwhile, will have to face mighty Arsenal.
English soccer fans often speak of “the magic of the Cup,” to conjure up the kind of upsets that have taken place recently. But over the years, as many of the best teams in England began to put their emphasis on the Premier League and the Champions League instead of the F.A. Cup, the phrase more and more seemed like wishful thinking.
After last weekend’s upsets, however, the F.A. Cup does feel a little more magical.