Replacing the "Off-Beat" Gold Cup

Posted on June 10, 2011 4:42 pm

If you have watched any Gold Cup games or read anything on the tournament, surely you have encountered some version of these statements:

This Gold Cup matters.”

This Gold Cup is the one that counts.”

“The winner of this Gold Cup gets to play in the 2013 Confederations Cup in Brazil.”

Implicit in them is a disdain for the other Gold Cup: the one played in the year before the World Cup finals, right in the middle of the Hexagonal, littered with B-teams. The winner does get to hoist the behemoth trophy, but otherwise the tournament is widely seen as an unnecessary distraction.

Of course, as much as players, coaches and fans may wish that the “off-beat” editions would disappear, administrators throughout CONCACAF need only look at the 80,000 plus tickets that were sold for Mexico’s quarterfinal match against Haiti in 2009 to be convinced of the huge economic benefits of maintaining the biennial Gold Cup. Other than allowing CONCACAF a cut of SUM profits from the Mexican National Team’s US friendlies, I do not know how the revenue generated from the “off-beat” Gold Cups could be replaced.

From a sporting perspective, however, the benefits of having a Gold Cup in the middle of the Hexagonal can be obtained without the tournament itself.

Of course, the first reaction of North American readers must be: “Benefits? What benefits?” One must consider what is in the best interest of all the national teams in CONCACAF; and for all but the six teams in the Hex, the off-beat Gold Cup (and the tournaments that feed into it) keeps them active. For instance, without it, Grenada would have only played 6 competitive matches in the 2006-2010 World Cup cycle, instead of the 19 they actually played (10 in the 2008 Caribbean Cup, plus 3 in the 2009 Gold Cup).

The new World Cup qualifying format goes a long way towards addressing this problem, with all but five teams in the region being guaranteed at least six matches (including three high-profile home games). As for the Gold Cup, however, I would like to suggest another solution that provides more competitive matches for the mid- to low-tier national teams in our region without the current Hexagonal interruption. I base this on the innovative AFC Challenge Cup, held biennially, which qualifies two champions to the quadrennial Asian Cup.

In my proposal, CONCACAF celebrates only one quadrennial Gold Cup, in the year following the World Cup finals (WC+1), with the winner qualifying for the FIFA Confederations Cup. However, instead of awarding all 5 UNCAF spots and all 4 CFU spots in one single tournament each, we maintain the biennial Copa Centroamericana and Caribbean Cup tournaments, only awarding half of the Gold Cup spots in each one.

In the case of the Caribbean, this would mean that in the Caribbean Cup held in the WC-2 year (e.g. the Caribbean Cup to be held from January to July of 2012, which for our purposes would serve as a qualifier for the 2015 Gold Cup), only the two finalists would qualify for the Gold Cup. They would also be excused from the next Caribbean Cup, to be held in the same year as the World Cup finals (year WC), from which the two finalists from that tournament would also qualify for our continental championship.

In Central America, I would be even more ambitious: first, I would move the first Copa Centroamericana back a year, from the WC-1 year (the same one as the Hex, and thus a distraction for the Central American teams still alive in the World Cup) to the WC-2 year, where it would take place in January, well ahead of the semifinal round of World Cup qualifying. The Copa Centroamericana would be played under the current format (one group of 4 and one group of 3), but the fifth-place match would be dropped, and only the top three teams would qualify for the Gold Cup. Voila! The tournament is suddenly more competitive, even down to the third-place match. And, the top three teams would be excused from the next UNCAF tournament.

That leaves only four teams; I would have them play a new tournament, the Repesca Centroamericana, in January of the same year as the World Cup (year WC). This would take the form of a group stage, with every team playing each other once. To make things more interesting, I would have the third-best team in the Repesca Centroamericana (based on FIFA rankings) host the first matchday, the second-best team the second day, and the highest-ranked team the final day of fixtures. That way, strong crowds (if not sell-outs) would show up to watch the home team in the second game of each day, helping to make the tournament profitable for UNCAF (even with the travel expenses). And from the Repesca, the top two teams in the final table would qualify for the Gold Cup.

In this way, teams such as Nicaragua, Suriname and Puerto Rico would be guaranteed at least six competitive “regional” games in each World Cup cycle, along with the World Cup qualifiers themselves. At the same time, these Gold Cup qualifier tournaments would avoid imposing on the teams in the Hexagonal; and the Gold Cup itself, now the quadrennial showpiece of the region, would acquire much more cache with the discussion of “does this one count?” being forever laid to rest.

What’s that you say? Oh right, I almost forgot about Canada. Well, they would just have to settle for at least six guaranteed World Cup qualifiers and an automatic spot in the Gold Cup alongside the US and Mexico. Not a bad deal, I would argue.

February 5, 2012 postscript: if the rumored Copa Panamericana (expanded Copa America) ends up taking place in 2016, and if it becomes a permanent fixture, then CONCACAF will be able to discontinue the “off-beat” Gold Cup referred to in this entry. Under my aforementioned proposal, the CFU and UNCAF would continue to organize biennial tournaments, with around half the Gold Cup berths available in each one.

The first Caribbean Cup and Copa Centroamericana would not require any alterations, other than the Fifth-Place Match in the latter being rendered unnecessary. The Repesca Centroamericana would also be straightforward, although UNCAF may prefer to host the entire thing in one country. That just leaves the second Caribbean Cup, one that requires significant format changes due to the defending champion’s absence (both finalists from the first Caribbean Cup would be excused from this tournament). The following is a suggestion for how it could be done, in a manner that respects both the need for multiple fixtures for all participating teams and the geographical challenges unique to the Caribbean region.

The Caribbean Cup finals begin with two groups of four, with the host seeded into one group and the defending champion in the other. Everyone else in the sub-region has to fight for the six remaining spots, which can be neatly divided up among the three groups in the last qualifying round (two spots for each group). In my proposal, though, the defending champion does not participate in the second Caribbean Cup, leaving an unseemly number of qualifying spots for organizers: seven. The only way to have a “clean” qualifying format (i.e. no “x number of group runners-up move on” provision) would be to set up one round with seven groups, with all group winners proceeding directly to the Caribbean Cup finals. However, this would leave all but the group winners with only two-to-three matches in the entire tournament; my proposal maintains the system of two rounds of qualifying, doubling the number of fixtures for teams that participate in both.

The first model presented here assumes that all 30 CFU members register to participate in the hypothetical 2018 Caribbean Cup (feeding into the 2019 Gold Cup and the 2020 Copa Panamericana). We also assume that Jamaica and Cuba are exempt from the tournament, as finalists in the 2016 Caribbean Cup (both qualified for the 2019 Gold Cup); and that Antigua and Barbuda have been selected as hosts for the 2018 Caribbean Cup. Thus, we must distill seven qualifiers from 27 hopefuls.

In this proposal, all teams will be seeded according to the latest FIFA Ranking, leaving non-FIFA-affiliated members at the bottom (one could also use positioning in the last Caribbean Cup as the basis, without changing the main formula). Here I anachronistically use the current one.

1) Trinidad and Tobago
2) Haiti
3) Guyana
4) Bermuda
5) Puerto Rico
6) St. Kitts and Nevis
7) Suriname
8 ) Dominican Republic
9) Grenada
10) St. Vincent and the Grenadines
11) Curaçao
12) Bahamas
13) Aruba
14) Barbados
15) Dominica
16) US Virgin Islands
17) Cayman Islands
18) St. Lucia
19) British Virgin Islands
20) Turks and Caicos Islands
21) Anguilla
22) Montserrat
23) Guadeloupe
24) Martinique
25) St. Martin
26) French Guyana
27) Sint Maarten

The top seven teams would receive byes to the second round of qualifying, while the rest would be placed in four pots in order to set up the first round of qualifying, featuring five groups of four. All group winners qualify to the second round, as well as the four best runners-up (based on points, then goal differential, then goals scored). The groups would be drawn based on geographic proximity, rather than on a random basis; and the top-seeded team would have the preferential option on hosting the group, with everyone playing each other once in three matchdays over a period of one week. The reality is that if travel is prohibitively expensive for the smaller teams, they typically prefer to withdraw from the tournament; at least relying on pots ensures some competitive fairness. Based on that, here are the groups that I drew:

Group A

Dominican Republic
Cayman Islands
British Virgin Islands
Saint Martin

Group B

Grenada
Dominica
Anguilla
Martinique

Group C

St. Vincent and the Grenadines
Barbados
Montserrat
Guadeloupe

Group D

Curaçao
Aruba
St. Lucia
French Guyana

Group E

Bahamas
US Virgin Islands
Turks and Caicos Islands
Sint Maarten

I project that the Dominican Republic, Grenada, Guadeloupe, Curaçao and the Bahamas would win their groups, with the Cayman Islands, Dominica, St. Vincent and St. Lucia surviving as runners-up (the Turks and Caicos Islands miss out). The survivors would then be placed in four pots along with the seeded teams for the second round of qualifying, with four groups of four (again, the top seed would have the preferential option of hosting – this way, T&T, Haiti Guyana and Bermuda can anticipate this from the start). All four group winners, along with the three best runners-up, would qualify for the Caribbean Cup. A potential outcome would be:

Group F

Trinidad and Tobago
St. Kitts and Nevis
Grenada
Guadeloupe

Group G

Haiti
Dominican Republic
St. Vincent and the Grenadines
Cayman Islands

Group H

Guyana
Suriname
Curaçao
St. Lucia

Group I

Bermuda
Puerto Rico
Bahamas
Dominica

To return to reality, I excluded every team that declined to participate in the (real) 2010 Caribbean Cup in my second model. Here, teams simply shift upward in the initial seedings in order to compensate; and in the draw, if the lowest pot is missing a group, then a “blank” ball could be drawn, leaving the other group members to play amongst themselves (in a two-game series, if only two teams are left). And just as a change, now I assume that Antigua and Barbuda are scheduled to host the 2018 Caribbean Cup, and that Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago reached the Final of the 2016 version. Thus we begin with the seeding:

1) Haiti
2) Guyana
3) Puerto Rico
4) Cuba
5) St. Kitts and Nevis
6) Suriname
7) Dominican Republic
8 ) Grenada
9) St. Vincent and the Grenadines
10) Curaçao
11) Aruba
12) Barbados
13) Dominica
14) Cayman Islands
15) St. Lucia
16) British Virgin Islands
17) Anguilla
18) Montserrat
19) Guadeloupe
20) Martinique
21) St. Martin

The top seven would receive byes to the second round, while the remaining 14 would be separated into three pots (five teams in the first two pots, and only four in the third). Only the winner of the two-team group moves on, along with the winners and runners-up of all the other groups. Here is a possible outcome:

Group A

Grenada
St. Lucia
Guadeloupe

Group B

St. Vincent and the Grenadines
Dominica
St. Martin

Group C

Curaçao
Cayman Islands (played as a two-game series in Curaçao)

Group D

Aruba
Dominica
Martinique

Group E

Barbados
British Virgin Islands
Montserrat

Here I project Guadeloupe, Grenada, St. Vincent, Dominica, the Cayman Islands (in an upset), Martinique, Aruba, Barbados and Montserrat surviving the first round. They then get placed into four pots along with the teams that received a bye, in order to set up four second-round groups, from which the group winners and three best runners-up qualify for the Caribbean Cup finals. The potential groups:

Group F

Haiti
Dominican Republic
St. Vincent and the Grenadines
Guadeloupe

Group G

Guyana
Suriname
Aruba
Martinique

Group H

Puerto Rico
St. Kitts and Nevis
Barbados
Montserrat

Group I

Cuba
Grenada
Dominica
Cayman Islands

Even with fewer participants in the second model, there would be a total of 38 qualifying matches played, only one fewer than in the 2010 Caribbean Cup. Also, more teams get to play in the second round; and no country would disproportionately suffer from proximity to the stronger teams in the Caribbean, with two spots in the next round available in each group. Lastly, the first-round survivors would get to play at least five matches in the tournament, ensuring that the smaller national teams remain active. This is one of many formats that the organizers could consider for a Caribbean Cup with seven places to fill in the Final Round; but it ticks all the boxes in terms of CFU priorities for the tournament.

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