Copa Centroamericana: Improvement by Subtraction

Posted on January 26, 2012 8:05 pm

Why is the CONCACAF Gold Cup unique among continental championships?

Most likely, your first reaction was “of course, it’s the only one that gets hosted in the same country every time!” That is certainly true; and it is unlikely to change anytime soon, since the tournament subsidizes all other CONCACAF events. It is also the only continental championship for which teams qualify on a sub-regional basis, with Central American and Caribbean national teams reaching the Gold Cup through their separate tournaments.

Speaking of these competitions, the latest updates serve as a sad reminder of the current gulf in organization between the Football Unions of Central America (UNCAF) and the Caribbean (CFU). The 2012 Caribbean Cup will take place before the 2013 Copa Centroamericana, both of which feed into the 2013 Gold Cup.* But while we still do not know where the Caribbean Cup finals will be held (the CFU’s Football Committee has been tasked with carrying out “a review of the CFU competitions format”), Costa Rican football president Eduardo Li has already confirmed that his country has been chosen to host the 2013 Centroamericana.

The latter tournament is set up rather oddly, and with good reason: the Centroamericana is tasked with winnowing five Gold Cup qualifiers out of a field of seven. It starts with four teams in Group A (usually featuring the host, along with the two weakest countries in the region: Nicaragua and Belize) and three in Group B. The top two teams from each group all qualify for the Gold Cup and move on to the semifinals, while the worst team in Group B takes on the third-place team in Group A in the Fifth-Place Match for the last Gold Cup berth.

Nicaragua have featured in every Fifth-Place Match since the departure of guest teams from the Gold Cup left UNCAF with five berths. In 2007, they took a merciless 9-1 beating from Honduras; two years later, the pinoleros shocked the region by upsetting Guatemala 2-0 and reaching the 2009 Gold Cup. They came close to repeating the trick in 2011, taking an early lead through a golazo from Felix Rodriguez; but Guatemala managed to save face with a 2-1 victory.

I cannot deny that the last two fifth-placers have been exciting; however, they do not make up for what I see as a flaw with the tournament’s structure. Just in case you missed it: once the group stage of the Copa Centroamericana is finished, only one team is eliminated from the Gold Cup. It is unnecessarily inefficient; and the Fifth-Place Match itself attracts very little interest, both in the stands (just look up either of the Nicaragua-Guatemala matches on Youtube) and on TV. As an example, when I studied abroad in Costa Rica in 2009, every match of that year’s tournament was available on the national Repretel network…except for the fifth-place repechaje. I would like to suggest a format revision that would allow the Copa Centroamericana to serve its primary purpose at the first time of asking, make its group stage more exciting and rid it of an undesirable fixture.

First, I would order all Central American national teams by the most recently available FIFA rankings. In my proposal, the top three teams get placed in Group B, while the remaining four meet in Group A. Every team in Group B automatically qualifies for the Gold Cup, and will advance to the semifinals; in Group A, the top two finishers also qualify for the Gold Cup, but only the group winner moves on to the Centroamericana semifinals. From there, the semifinal matchups are:

Group B winner vs. Group A winner
Group B second-place vs. Group B third-place

with the Third-Place Match and Final to follow.

Using the current FIFA Rankings, the first round would be set up in the following manner:

Group A

El Salvador
Guatemala
Belize
Nicaragua

Group B

Panama
Honduras
Costa Rica

Then again, El Salvador is close to overtaking Costa Rica in said Rankings, so the group composition would depend on when UNCAF decides to announce it. With this set-up, the Group B teams would get to play highly-anticipated matches with each other, for pride and also to earn the easier semifinal matchup by finishing in first place; while every showdown in Group A would be more exciting, with Belize and Nicaragua fighting for their one-and-only shot at the Gold Cup (no more second-chances), while El Salvador and Guatemala would compete with each other just to stay alive in the Centroamericana.

You might be against the idea of giving the Group B teams automatic passes to the Gold Cup. In that case, I would reply with two questions:

1) Do you think that Panama, Honduras and Costa Rica have a realistic chance of failing to qualify for the Gold Cup under the current format?
2) What has Canada done to earn its automatic spot? (answer: win the Gold Cup 12 years ago)

One could also object to the guaranteed Group B rematch in the semifinals (second-place versus third-place); but in any tournament in which more than one team advances from a group, there is the possibility that two teams that survived the same group could cross swords later on. Just look at the Copa America: in 2007, the Venezuela-Uruguay and Brazil-Chile quarterfinals were rematches of their group stage encounters (in fact, Venezuela played Uruguay twice in a row), while Brazil faced fellow Group B participant Paraguay in the quarterfinals of the 2011 edition.

Finally, the biggest concern with my proposal is the possibility that first place in Group B can be sealed before Matchday 3, if and only if the team that plays in the first two games wins them both. If this happens, the last game becomes a dead-rubber between two sides that will meet again in the semifinals. To prevent this, I would have the third-best team play in the first two fixtures; or the second-best team, if the third-best happens to be the host (as it would be, using the current rankings). Say El Salvador manages to overtake Costa Rica before UNCAF’s cut-off date for setting up the groups; then the fixtures would look like this:

Honduras – El Salvador
Panama – El Salvador
Panama – Honduras

Unless the cuscatlecos were able to win their two matches outright (unlikely), first place would be up for grabs until the end.

There are few ways to reduce the awkwardness of a tournament that weeds out only two teams from seven, but in my proposal the process is more straightforward. It discontinues the unappetizing Fifth-Place Match, concentrating the excitement of Gold Cup qualification entirely in the group stage. On the odd chance that someone in UNCAF’s top brass passes by this page, I hope that he or she takes into account this suggestion for streamlining their championship.

* The Copa Centroamericana will take place in January 2013, while the Gold Cup will most likely be held in July after the Confederations Cup.

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