A New Era in CONCACAF

Posted on August 12, 2011 4:59 pm

In any football tournament that features both group and knockout stages, the majority of matches take place in the former. Think about the World Cup finals: by the time the last games in Group G or H are done and the Round of 16 is set, 75% of the fixtures in the tournament have already come and gone.

Now think back to where things stood in our region in 2007: at the club level, the CONCACAF Champions Cup did not even have a group stage; just an eight-team knockout tournament over two months, in which half of the teams would bow out after all of two games. And in World Cup qualifying, by the time we reached the first group stage, more than half of the participating national teams had already been eliminated (23 of 35).

For various reasons, from regional lobbying to outside competition (e.g. the now-defunct Superliga), times have changed significantly: from August 16 to November 15 of this year, no fewer than 120 continental matches will take place in our region, between the Champions League and the elementary round of World Cup qualifying. Only 12 CONCACAF members will not be participating: Jamaica, Cuba, the five football associations eliminated in the first round of World Cup qualifying and the five not recognized by FIFA.

During this time, the Estadio Rommel Fernandez in Panama will host six high-profile regional matches, three each for Tauro FC and the national team. The same will occur at BMO Field in Toronto, with TFC and the Canadian national team sharing the venue for their international duties. Nicaragua will host more World Cup qualifiers, and its national team play in more of them, than in the last two World Cups combined. And make that “three World Cups combined” in the cases of a number of Caribbean participants, such as Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.

Speaking of the Caribbean: even though the CFU failed to send a club to the group stage of the CCL for the first time, in the World Cup it will have 18 countries and commonwealths involved in the same competition over three months, with each participant hosting three matches – to my mind, the first time in history that such an event has occurred. The potential is there for a major upswing in the popularity of football across the board, in an area more infatuated with sports involving a bat (baseball and cricket).

The most immediate consequence that this period of World Cup and CCL matches should have on our region is an increase in exposure of CONCACAF events. From Bermuda to Barbados to Belize, football will be front-page (or back-page) news over the next three months, with national teams taking center stage as they attempt to make waves in the World Cup and challenge more illustrious opponents, such as Trinidad and Tobago and Guatemala. Even when their improbable dream of surviving the elementary round comes to an end, they will still have two matches in November against opponents their own size; while upstarts like Antigua and Barbuda, St. Kitts and Nevis and Guyana will look to upset their favored rivals the home-and-away series between the top-ranked sides.

The four biggest countries in CONCACAF, meanwhile, will be primarily concerned with the CCL, two of them to an unprecedented extent. Honduras and Mexico are used to hosting 6 and 16 CCL group-stage matches each year, respectively. This time, however, Costa Rica and the United States will match their level of involvement, with the former also hosting 6 matches and the latter 16 (although the eastern half of the US has been completely frozen out).

In the longer term, an increase in the number of high-profile matches in a World Cup cycle should contribute to improvement in the level of football in the weakest areas of our region. Here I will have to disagree with Bill Archer, who previously dismissed the potential for smaller Caribbean national teams to be more competitive:

But since a solid two thirds of the “nations” in the CFU have populations smaller than that of Des Moines Iowa ([pop.] 200,000) it’s hard to see how $1.3 million – or $13 million for that matter – can be spent in a manner which will make a country like Curacao (130,000) competitive with Mexico, Canada, the US, Honduras or El Salvador.

It simply can’t be done no matter how many national headquarters buildings or training centers or stadiums you build them. I’m not any kind of geneticist but even I can see that the odds of a country with a population base of 100,000 people cranking out a world class soccer team are beyond astronomical.

This whole bogus “raising the level of Caribbean football” meme is of course what was behind the recent changes in CONCACAF qualifying procedure, the theory being that the reason St. Kitts and Nevis (38,756) didn’t kick off in South Africa last June is because their national team didn’t get enough “high level games”.

In actuality of course they could join UEFA and play 50 internationals a year forever and it wouldn’t make a lick of difference. Everybody understands that the sole reason for the change is so that these flyspeck island countries can host more internationals and pocket more money.

Now, I will avoid pulling a Kanye by suggesting that “Bill Archer doesn’t care about island people”; but his almost Simon Kuper-ian reliance on population as a determining factor of a national-team program’s potential betrays an ignorance of recent changes in the hierarchy of Caribbean football.

Take the example of Guadeloupe (400,000). They have reached the semifinal stage of the last three Caribbean Cups, and came within penalties of winning the last one outright. By virtue of this success, they have played in the last three Gold Cups, in which they only got knocked out in the group stage once; only took in four goals in three games against Mexico and the United States; and defeated Canada, Honduras, Panama and Nicaragua. The Gwada Boyz do have the advantage of being a French départment d’outre-mer, with the caveat that their best players get absorbed by the French national team (just imagine what Guadeloupe could have done in 2007 with Thierry Henry and Lilian Thuram on board). My point is that with an improvement in the footballing infrastructure (especially in terms of training youth players), there is no reason that even tiny islands cannot become more competitive – not necessarily to the point of threatening to qualify for the World Cup finals, but certainly above their status quo (see: Grenada’s rise from obscure also-rans to Gold Cup participants). Certainly, many Caribbean national teams would fare better just by learning to play competent defense.

An increase in the number of matches played does not directly lead to this happening; but it does force teams and associations alike to reconsider and improve their preparations for prolonged involvement in international tournaments. For instance, the US Virgin Islands managed to land Keith Griffith as coach for their first-ever foray into a group stage of World Cup qualifying. In case you have forgotten, he was the same coach that led Joe Public to a historic beatdown of the New England Revolution in their own house, and to this day is the only one to have led his non-Mexican team to an away victory in Mexico in the CCL. Under his tutelage, the Americans managed their first and second World Cup victories in their history against the British Virgin Islands, an achievement that earned them six more World Cup games and greater relevance in their own commonwealth. And Puerto Rico have obtained the services of Jeaustin Campos, the Costa Rican that previously led Deportivo Saprissa to the last three of their five consecutive domestic championships between 2005 and 2008.

Before this point, the majority of CONCACAF members only had relatively low-profile UNCAF and CFU tournaments to fill up their calendar between brief cameos in World Cup qualifying. And at the club level, the Champions Cup would barely register on anyone’s radar, with the possible exception of Costa Rica. Now, however, our region is set to be flooded with continental football. Maybe that’s what Jack Warner meant by a “football tsunami”; too bad he’ll have nothing to do with it, and all the better for the rest of us.

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