CONCACAF’s New Plan: Make Even More Money

Posted on February 12, 2012 2:45 am

The last time I wrote about the potential Copa Panamericana, I based it entirely on comments from Ecuadoran Football Federation (FEF) President Luis Chiriboga. Fortunately, more officials have affirmed the rumors: CONMEBOL President Nicolas Leoz talked up a commemorative, expanded 2016 Copa América in an interview with ESPN, in which he echoed Chiriboga’s assertion that the tournament would include all 10 CONMEBOL members with six teams from CONCACAF. Curiously, he also added that European and Asian teams could be invited to the party, with Spain and Japan the most likely candidates (mind you, with Euro 2016 set to take place in France during the same summer, the Spaniards would most likely send a B-team across the Atlantic for the occasion). Finally, Leoz stated that he had talked with Mexican Football Federation (FMF) President Justino Compean about his desire to have Mexico host CONMEBOL’s centennial celebration.

Last Wednesday, interim CONCACAF President Alfredo Hawit added his two cents on the topic during his trip to Mexico, along with a range of declarations pertaining to the future of football in our region. Of course, anything he says has to be taken with a grain of salt, since it is highly unlikely that he will occupy the same position next year (as my colleague Bill Archer pointed out last month, CONCACAF’s next permanent president will most likely be a Sepp Blatter-approved Caribbean official). Even so, I will provide my reactions to his comments, since they point to a number of structural changes that will most likely remain in consideration once he vacates the Presidency (at which point Hawit will still carry influence over CONCACAF affairs as a Vice President and Executive Committee member). More importantly, they betray the priorities held by the current leadership, with profit even more prevalent than before.

First, let us clear up the cryptic aside by FEF President Chiriboga regarding changes in CONCACAF: it is no secret that ex-General Secretary Chuck Blazer had a laundry list of grievances with the South Americans, including their apparent refusal to continue sending guest teams to the Gold Cup; their voting for Qatar’s 2022 World Cup bid; and their hoarding a playoff spot for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, instead of letting CONCACAF have four direct berths. One could hypothesize that said grievances played a role in Blazer’s decision to hamstring Mexico’s 2011 Copa América squad with age restrictions. But he’s gone, and Hawit went out of his way to emphasize that he does not share any of the ancien régime‘s rancor towards CONMEBOL. He specifically stated that Mexico will be allowed to bring a full squad to the 2015 Copa América in Brazil. Their status as guests will likely prevent most of their Euro-stars from participating, but at least the aztecas will be able to bury the humiliation of their last-place finish at the 2011 Copa América with a stronger showing on their third-straight trip to the land of samba (barring any catastrophe in World Cup qualifying). It is worth mentioning that while Hawit clarified his support for Mexico’s relationship with CONMEBOL, he did not bring up the possibility of allowing Mexican clubs back into the Copa Sudamericana.

With respect to the potential 2016 Copa América, Hawit offered two revisions to the version suggested by Leoz and Chiriboga. First, according to Hawit, the competition would feature eight CONCACAF members alongside the CONMEBOL regulars. My best guess here is that he misspoke when offering up that number; otherwise, the tournament would have to either feature three groups of six, six groups of three or an awkward play-in round in order to limit the field to 16 (perhaps the two worst CONCACAF qualifiers against the worst two from CONMEBOL?). The second divergence, however, points rather blatantly to Hawit’s biggest interest: whereas Leoz had suggested that Mexico would play host, the Honduran made clear his preference for having the Copa take place in the United States.

Why the difference of opinion?

Porque el mercado está en los Estados Unidos, los estadios están en Estados Unidos, la gente está en Estados Unidos. El estudio que hemos hecho es que en Estados Unidos están todos

For non-Spanish-speakers:

“Because the market is in the United States, the stadiums are in the United States, the people are in the United States. The study that we have made [shows] that everything’s in the United States.”

Even his obligatory compliment towards his hosts referred to their popularity north of the border:

El peso de poner el futbol y llenar los estadios en Estados Unidos, eso es lo que compartimos y aceptamos y admiramos de México.

“The weight of [playing] football and filling stadiums in the United States, that is what we share and accept and admire from Mexico.”

Just in case anyone had lingering doubts: it really is all about the money. Hawit’s remarks on the Gold Cup reflect a similar mindset. First, he stated that the Copa América proposal included the provision that CONCACAF not organize a Gold Cup in 2016. Here I assume that he made another off-hand mistake: given that Gold Cups have been held on odd years since 2003, our continental championship would have been on hiatus anyways. Perhaps he meant that CONCACAF would agree to drop the 2017 Gold Cup, in which case I am certainly pleased with the replacement for the “off-beat” tournament. Moreover, I strongly anticipate that after the success of the 2016 Copa, whoever is in charge in CONCACAF will lobby his or her CONMEBOL counterpart in order to continue with the expanded format, since a World Cup cycle with a Gold Cup and Copa “Panamericana” is almost certainly more profitable than one with a Gold Cup that “matters” and one that doesn’t.

Hawit, though, continued by mentioning a proposal to have Brazil as a permanent invitee to the Gold Cup, ostensibly to have even better attendance in the stadiums. I strongly suspect that when he talked about “looking for new markets, not only our own but the markets of Africa, Asia and CONMEBOL,” he also meant extending invitations to national teams from the Old World to participate in the Gold Cup, a policy that saw South Korea join us for the 2002 tournament and South Africa in the 2005 edition. To be fair, and taking Blazer’s complaints into account, Hawit’s suggestion is a continuation of CONCACAF’s guest policy, rather than a divergence. Having said that, from a footballing perspective CONCACAF has more than enough members to organize a Gold Cup free of outsiders, as has been done since 2007. It is true that the worst qualifiers from Central America and the Caribbean (think Nicaragua and Grenada) will not provide as much as Brazil from a marketing, financial and competitive perspective; but as CONCACAF members, the benefits that Gold Cup qualification can offer them (especially in terms of development and exposure) should not simply be brushed aside in favor of bigger profits, and I would hope that CFU and UNCAF members say as much at the next CONCACAF General Assembly.

Fortunately, we can leave the cynicism behind when considering Hawit’s last suggestion, one primarily concerned with the football politics in our corner of the world. He has proposed that the CONCACAF presidency be rotated on a quadrennial basis among the three sub-regions (North America, Central America and the Caribbean). Presumably, in practice one sub-region would have a monopoly on presidential candidates, followed by another sub-region for the next term, with all members participating in the general elections. I am strongly in favor of this policy for three reasons. First, this measure would limit the presidency to a single four-year term: the rotation would prevent, say, a Caribbean president from running for reelection once the Presidency shifts to UNCAF. Second, the rotation would reinforce each sub-region’s commitment to the whole, reducing the possibility of future fractures within CONCACAF. Finally, the Caribbean would retain its disproportional influence, an important factor in getting the overwhelming majority to agree to this change. If, for instance, Compean, Sunil Gulati and Peter Montopoli were to contest the presidency when the rotation shifts to North America, each would have to curry favor with Caribbean voters in order to win, encouraging a greater understanding of their concerns.

While Hawit’s political proposal would significantly improve the future of CONCACAF, his sporting ones would relegate the development of football in our region to a secondary concern, well behind the desire to increase revenue. The last Gold Cup berths given to Central America and the Caribbean provide realistic short-term targets for emerging nations such as Nicaragua, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Guyana; and frankly, as CONCACAF members they should expect much more concern over their well-being from the confederation’s leadership.

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