Should the Gold Cup and Copa America merge?
Background photo: Daniel Reche
Change comes to football slower than catsup travels from the bottle to the burger. VAR is your proof. When change finally arrives, however, it’s still like the catsup in that there tends to be far more of it than anyone intended or desired when they first opened the bottle. Again, VAR confirms as much. There are other changes that football's conservative administrators would prefer to usher in slowly if at all. One is the reluctance of Concacaf and Conmebol to enter into a marriage of convenience.
While they are opposites in size and prestige, the two confederations that span the Americas are also aligned in that both aspire to be more than they are at the moment. If the people in power were less concerned about preserving their patch, the two might be able to work together to realise those aspirations.
Conmebol only comprises ten nations. Yet, it is the second-most powerful body among the six organizations directly below FIFA on the pyramid. Only UEFA wields more influence in the halls of power.
Once upon a time, the two were equals. In that era, FIFA was governed by the Brazilian, Joao Havelange. Since Sepp Blatter’s ascension to the world body’s presidency, South America’s status has gradually eroded. The Swiss used the power of the vote and prestigious hosting rights to gain allies among the other confederations and shift the delicate balance of power in his and Europe’s favour. That hasn’t changed under Gianni Infantino, especially with former CBF president, Ricardo Texeira, caught up in the corruption scandal that also took down Blatter and Michel Platini. Havelange’s son-in-law, the Brazilian boss was also a heavy hitter on the FIFA Executive Committee. Without his influence, the gap between Conmebol and UEFA widens.
If the six confederations were ordered in a table with Conmebol one place removed from the top, Concacaf would be one off the bottom.
Only Oceania is lower in the pecking order. The 14-nation confederation consists of New Zealand and several tiny South Pacific islands. It wasn’t good enough for Australia who picked up their ball and went to play in Asia. Travel is onerous for the Socceroos in the AFC but they now stand an excellent chance for direct qualification for the World Cup. The best to be hoped for by winning OFC qualifiers was the opportunity to play their way into the tournament against a team from another region. In 2013, New Zealand flirted with the idea of joining Conmebol but ultimately decided not to abandon Oceania. The All Whites remain content to bully their smaller neighbours every four years so they may roll the dice against the Uruguays and Bahrains of the world.
Concacaf’s limitations are the same, albeit on a larger scale. The United States and Mexico are its equivalent to Australia, large powerful nations seeking a way to break the glass ceiling that holds them back when it comes to the World Cup. Costa Rica, Honduras, Panama, Jamaica and Trinidad are the region’s New Zealands. Every cycle, these nations battle for the four-and-a-half World Cup berths allotted to Concacaf and contest the Gold Cup for continental bragging rights. As far as outsiders are concerned, virtually no one pays them any mind.
This is especially true for the Gold Cup which is ongoing as we speak. With the Copa America, AFCON and Women’s World Cup also taking place, it’s safe to say Concacaf’s championship will draw the fewest viewers. With American investors and broadcasters prioritising other sports, leaving Mexico as the only large football culture in the region, that’s unlikely to change. In fact, if Concacaf gave up and abandoned the Gold Cup, the rest of the world probably wouldn’t notice.
Meanwhile, Conmebol staged its Copa America Centenario in the United States in 2016, expanding the event to include 16 countries and generating far more interest than Concacaf’s own tournament. South America already invites two outside nations to Copa America to make it a 12-nation event. Why not enter into an agreement with Concacaf to make it 16 every cycle by including Concacaf’s top teams?
There are a few ways to do this. The Gold Cup could be scrapped altogether, although pride and greed will surely rule out that possibility. Happily, this is the last Copa America in an odd-numbered year. One will be staged next year, then every four years hence. If the Gold Cup remains in odd years, Concacaf teams can participate in both with the four group winners in League A of the forthcoming Concacaf Nations League qualifying for the Copa. From there, Conmebol can elect to include two further Concacaf teams or continue inviting countries from other regions in an effort to expand its global presence.
As stated in the beginning, a comprehensive tournament open to teams from everywhere in the Americas would be a marriage of convenience for the two confederations. Conmebol gains entry into lucrative markets that can help it compete for prestige with UEFA. More American and Canadian fans are likely to watch the tournament rather than the Euros if their countries are involved. In turn, Concacaf’s best teams can compete against top South American sides, thereby raising their game and becoming forces to be reckoned with in the World Cup.
As things stand, Concacaf and Conmebol continue to bruise their palms banging the World Cup catsup bottle with nothing to show for their pain. If they combine forces, maybe something good will finally spill out and in a big way.