This is the second post in a series of five recommendations for USSF President Sunil Gulati
International tournaments are soccer’s Holy Grail. Club soccer has exploded around the world and changed the business of game, but it’s still the World Cup that grabs the attention of fans like no other competition. Europe’s continental championship is just a tick below the World Cup and South America’s is well above other such competitions. These tournaments are not just great for fans, however, as consistent high-level competition is a huge advantage for national teams. Our continental championship, the Gold Cup, is a very poor tournament that does little for fans or players. A merger of the North and South American competitions in a true Copa Americas makes sense on competitive, fan interest, and importantly, financial grounds.
While the US national team has several years until its next truly consequential game, the first match in qualifying for Euro 2012 is just a few months away. The qualification round is the best of both worlds for the development of top European teams, as there is a mix of very weak teams and strong sides with a reasonable margin of error to get through to the tournament finals. The weaker and middling sides allow teams like Germany to bring younger players into the squad in competitive matches against weaker opponents while there are enough tough games to keep the team sharp. This works for fans too, as it’s just a short World Cup hangover until meaningful games begin again. And needless to say, the national soccer federations reap huge windfalls from playing numerous qualifying games on top of another major tournament.
The South American tournament—Copa America—is not as strong a tournament among any of the variables. With only 10 teams in the Conmebol region, there is no qualifying for Copa America meaning fewer competitive games for the teams and less money for the federations. Conmebol used to compensate for this by holding the tournament every odd year, but that has been scrapped and is now held at four year intervals. Copa America is clearly the third best international tournament in the world and interest in South America is huge, but it doesn’t generate the excitement of the European championship outside of its home region.
The Gold Cup resides at a level well below the top two continental tournaments and probably worse off than even the Asian and African competitions due largely to the wide disparities between the top two teams and most of the rest of the field. The mid-ranked squads in the confederation like Costa Rica and Honduras are no pushovers and sometimes even break through to the final, but the championship is really the preserve of Mexico and the United States (get the numbers). The tournament generates little interest even in the region and is significant now largely because every other time out the winner gets the Concacaf bid into the Confederations Cup held the summer before the World Cup.
It’s clear that a merger of the Gold Cup with Copa America would be most advantageous to Concacaf and its top two sides in particular, but Conmebol would benefit as well. Expanding the tournament to formally draw in Mexico (a regular invitee to the current Copa), the United States and Canada would add close to 500 million potential television viewers and the money that brings. Structuring the tournament to include a qualifying round would boost revenue further for the likes of Brazil and Argentina and provide a good competitive experience to the next tier of South American teams to go along with the cash. Canada would go nuts for a meaningful match against Brazil in Toronto and as the World Cup qualifying playoff between Uruguay and Costa Rica demonstrated, matches between teams such as those would be a real test.
The simplest way to make something like this work would be to keep both the Copa America and the Gold Cup as they are and put the last eight from each competition into a 16 team tournament of the Americas. While that would be a good tournament and the least disruptive, it would still have the feel of an exhibition more like the Confederations Cup rather than a true championship. It would also miss out on the cross-confederation matchups if there is a qualifying round.
Putting together a qualifying round would be complex but far from impossible or unique. Conmebol consists of 10 teams and Concacaf has 40, 30 of which are small Caribbean nations. It would be necessary to have a first knock out round to eliminate many of the very weak sides, similar to what Concacaf does in World Cup qualifying. Pairing the bottom 36 teams in the world rankings in a home and away knock out competition would eliminate 18. That would leave a nice round 32 to make up eight, four-team groups out of which the top two in each would get into the finals.
Looking at the rankings, only Boliva from Conmebol would be forced into the first round at this point and even then its opponent wont keep if from the group qualifying stage. Certainly, some pretty weak teams would make it into the group qualifyiers, but no more unusual than England playing Andorra in European qualifying. If the top eight in the world rankings are seeded, you’d get groups that look something like this: Brazil, Canada, Jamaica, Haiti or USA, Ecuador, Panama, and Belize. Its likely that all 10 Conmebol teams would be favored to qualify, but there will be some really good competition for that second spot in some of the groups. This system is fair, would reflect the greater strength of Conmebol, and the six games most teams would play are enough to generate interest and revenue without being too onerous in a crowded fixture calendar.
The tournament could alternate hosting between the two confederations with perhaps some preference towards Conmebol given the larger number of countries capable of hosting the tournament. The opportunity to host the finals would also be a boost for some of the national federations, particularly Mexico, Canada or joint bid among some Central American teams that have few chances to host anything like a tournament of this size (the Mexicans because they’ve already hosted the World Cup twice). Holding the tournament in the even year between World Cups and working the schedule to complement the European Championships would make for quite a summer of international soccer, further increasing interest in the event.
Would Conmebol and FIFA go for something like this? Looking at the current 12-team structure of Copa America that requires two out of confederation invitations, expanding it to a 16-team tournament with six out of confederation teams is only a change in degree, not design. FIFA’s biggest problem with this structure is likely the elimination of a genuine confederation champion that would advance to the Confederations Cup. Of course, that would also happen if Mexico or Japan win Copa 2011 as invitees. But if it could be shown that this structure would increase revenue all around, I am sure a solution could be reached that preserves the Confederations Cup.
The extra money would be important for US soccer, but clearly the two most significant advantages of a tournament like this would be improved competition which hopefully would raise the level of US play and another big opportunity to capture the attention of American sports fans. This World Cup proved just how far interest in soccer in America has come and how much of a market there is for big soccer events. The challenge for the US soccer federation is bridging the gap between major tournaments. Concacaf on its own is just not capable of improving competition or raising fan interest. If I was Sunil Gulati, I would be pushing as hard as I could for a genuine Copa Americas.