On the Potential Panamericana

Posted on February 2, 2012 8:01 pm

Last Friday, Simon Borg stirred up no small amount of excitement by reporting on comments from Ecuadoran Football Federation (FEF) President Luis Chiriboga, concerning a special competition that could be organized in 2016 for CONMEBOL’s 100th anniversary. The tournament would count with six CONCACAF teams alongside all 10 CONMEBOL members, and the United States and Mexico would be primary candidates for hosting the centennial celebration.

This proposed competition follows Grant Wahl’s “Copa Américas” proposal to the letter, and he goes to great lengths to emphasize the commercial benefits for both organizers and media coverage of the sport in our country. Before moving on, I would just like to make one point about his suggestion: if we are going to refer to it in Spanish (and we practically have to, since the name “America’s Cup” already has its own sporting connotation), then we should adhere to Latin American geography, in which América solo hay una. Either the tournament would retain the name “Copa América”, or it could use a distinct moniker such as “Copa Panamericana”, which I will employ in the rest of this entry.

Chiriboga points out that a qualification process would be necessary for determining the CONCACAF participants in this tournament, which points to one of the main benefits available to our region: assuming that CONCACAF adopts the simple solution of using the 2015 Gold Cup in order to select the six qualifiers, our own championship would become even more important. Here I will differ from Wahl’s proposal and suggest* that the qualifiers should be the top two finishers from each group of the Gold Cup; if there were a Copa Panamericana 2012, the qualifiers would have been Mexico, Costa Rica, Jamaica, Honduras, the United States and Panama, all favorites to reach next year’s Hexagonal. Having Panamerican hopes on the line would add an extra twist of excitement to the group stage, while teams would still chase the Gold Cup trophy itself in order to win our berth in the Confederations Cup.

The FEF President barely veils the second main benefit with his choice of potential hosts for the 2016 Copa Panamericana, even if it would be curious for CONMEBOL to celebrate its 100th anniversary outside of its own domain. There is a widely-held consensus that such a tournament would make a financial killing in the United States; and with CONCACAF and CONMEBOL splitting the proceeds, the earnings would render the “off-beat” biennial Gold Cup unnecessary and vestigial. CONCACAF would be able to celebrate only one Gold Cup in each World Cup cycle, making it even more important (and internationally relevant) than ever. There would still be the need to keep smaller national teams active with regular games; here I will rehash my proposal to maintain the biennial Caribbean and Central American tournaments, with only half of the Gold Cup berths available in each one.**

A one-time tournament of this magnitude could be carried off without much controversy, given the circumstances. Any discussion of making the Copa Panamericana permanent, however, must realistically include two drawbacks. The first is that only one of CONCACAF and CONMEBOL would be able to claim it as the confederation’s official tournament, while the other would have to send guest teams – and given the format, one presumes that CONMEBOL would do the honors. FIFA would then be unable to obligate clubs to release players for any of the guest teams; for instance, Manchester United and Fulham would be perfectly within their rights to keep Chicharito, Clint Dempsey and Bryan Ruiz out of the Panamericana. Let me preemptively answer the question, “why can’t CONCACAF and CONMEBOL both claim it?” First, a national-team tournament officially sponsored by two confederations is completely unprecedented. Second, we already know that UEFA would vehemently oppose such a measure, in the best interests of their clubs as well as their own Euro championship. Even the status quo bothers the Europeans: UEFA lobbied against allowing guest teams in confederation championships three years ago, according to Mexican Football Federation (FMF) President Justino Compean.

The second drawback affects CONMEBOL in particular: the South Americans would have to decide whether to continue the Copa América or the Copa Panamericana, because European clubs would not allow the confederation to keep both. The problem lies with CONMEBOL’s World Cup qualifying format: the 18-game marathon so badly irks the employers of most of South America’s star players that a 2002 compromise forced CONMEBOL to drop the biennial Copa América, in order to keep it. As regional expert Tim Vickery points out, the format has contributed greatly to improvements in South American football, particularly in Ecuador and Venezuela; and it is unlikely that any of the Andean countries could be convinced to forgo the home matches against Argentina and Brazil each World Cup cycle. European clubs have made it clear that if the South American “league” is here to stay, then CONMEBOL will only be allowed one confederation tournament every World Cup cycle. An alternative solution would be to let CONCACAF sponsor the Panamericana, but then the tournament would have to make do without Messi, Higuain, Aguero, Pato, Robinho, Suarez, Alexis Sanchez, Antonio Valencia, Falcao, Arango, Haedo Valdez, Guerrero, etc.

The idea of a Copa Panamericana is music to the ears of football fans in our part of the world, and with good reason. The tournament would be a huge financial success, a juggernaut only superseded in international importance by the Euro; and the chance to play for a championship alongside Brazil and Argentina in-between World Cups would make football front-page news here on a regular basis, even in the US. I do not mean to put a damper on the excitement; rather, I am simply warning against getting carried away with anticipation.

* I have heard this idea on multiple occasions; suffice it to say that it is not originally my own.

** A quick summary of my proposal: since the CFU has four berths in the Gold Cup, only the finalists of the first Caribbean Cup would qualify; and they would be exempt from the second Caribbean Cup, from which the finalists would take the last two spots. UNCAF, meanwhile, has five berths in the continental championship; only the top three teams in the first Copa Centroamericana would qualify for the Gold Cup. The remaining four would play two years later in a Repesca Centroamericana, a round-robin group from which the two top teams would take the last spots in the Gold Cup. If travel logistics are prohibitively expensive, I would alter the proposal by having the top-ranked team host all three matchdays.

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