The Rules: Spell It Out

Posted on May 4, 2012 6:09 pm

Normally, with a heap of de facto CONCACAF Champions League qualifiers set to take place this weekend in Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean, I would focus today’s primary article on the upcoming fixtures: parsing out which teams are in need of a particular result, who stands to benefit from someone else’s success and where you can watch the more obscure matches. All of this will have to wait for a second entry: yesterday, regular reader It’s called FOOTBALL passed along the news that the Mexican Football Federation (FMF) had taken the rare step of proactively spelling out the hand-me-down scenarios for its CCL berths, a topic that merits its own discussion.

Each football federation in North and Central America, as well as the Caribbean Football Union (CFU), enjoys a certain degree of autonomy in deciding which teams qualify for the CCL, with CONCACAF also setting standards on a regional or sub-regional basis (for instance, when they established that all hand-me-down situations in Central America would be resolved with reference to the full-year table, although the application of this principle varies by country). Unfortunately, the federations typically hesitate to perceive a hand-me-down situation and provide an open, official clarification on which teams would advance to the Champions League in each possible scenario. For instance, those of you who follow the US Open Cup will remember how the US Soccer Federation dithered on the question of whether the 2010 Cup winner would participate in the 2011-12 CCL until the very day of the Final. Another example: last year, when it became apparent that the LA Galaxy could win both the Supporter’s Shield and the MLS Cup Final, with regular-season runners-up Seattle already qualified for the CCL (an unprecedented situation), the only person willing to go on the record and explain who would receive the US’s second top seed was MLSSoccer.com Editor-in-Chief Greg Lalas.

Providing a clear ruling ahead of time, besides making my work easier, allows the clubs that are interested in qualifying for the CCL (and since it is the Champions League we are discussing, I will go ahead and include “everyone” in that sentence) to know and determine exactly where they stand, based on transparent regulations. Furthermore, it spares CONCACAF and its members the unnecessary embarrassment of having to backtrack from earlier decisions (as when CONCACAF first included Aguila of El Salvador among the 2009-10 CCL qualifiers, then reconsidered and awarded the berth to Chalatenango), or worse, compromising their legitimacy by making things up as they go. Two recent examples from the Caribbean and El Salvador illustrate the consequences of lacking such foresight.

First, on April 24, CONCACAF announced that Baltimore of Haiti had reached the second round of this year’s CFU Club Champions Cup as the best runner-up. Before the statement, no one knew how this would be determined, given that two of the three first-round groups only featured three clubs. Among the runners-up, Guyana’s Alpha United had finished with 6 points to 4 for Baltimore and 3 for Elite (Cayman Islands), although the former had played one more fixture. In the end, the CFU decided to adopt the UEFA method of evening things out among runners-up from groups of different size, chalking off Alpha United’s victory over domestic opponents Milerock (the last-place team in Group 2). Thus, Baltimore now had 4 points to 3 each for Alpha and Elite, allowing the Haitians to move on to Round 2.

The only problem with this decision? None of this had been spelled out before the fact, even after it became clear that the eventual runner-up in Group 2 would play an extra match in comparison with those in Groups 1 and 3. Alpha United Club President Odinga Lumumba justifiably denounced the arbitrary decision, threatening to appeal to FIFA, CARICOM and anyone else who may have jurisdiction over the case; while I doubt governmental entities will get involved, it bears mentioning that all this confusion and post-decision ire could have been avoided if the CFU had announced from the start how the “best runner-up” would be decided. Then again, this case is entirely academic: the Puerto Rico Islanders, the T&T Pro League sides W Connection and Caledonia AIA, and Antigua Barracuda have been declared the only teams eligible to qualify for the next CCL, based on their “professional” status. Regardless of whether Alpha United’s horror show last year poisoned the well for “amateur” Caribbean clubs, last week’s announcement was the first time anyone had heard of this exclusionary caveat.

A second unwelcome surprise was delivered yesterday (hat-tip to slaminsams): after CONCACAF determined that Belize (once again) lacked a suitable stadium for hosting nighttime matches, their CCL berth was stripped and awarded to El Salvador, who will be represented by Isidro Metapan, Aguila and FAS. One of these is not like the others: while Metapan and Aguila will contest the Clausura title this Sunday, FAS failed to reach any Final in the last year, having fallen at the semifinal round each time – to Metapan in the current Clausura, and to Once Municipal last time.

That Once Municipal, the 2011 Apertura runner-up, did not receive a continental berth runs counter to every precedent set by CONCACAF since the change of format in 2008. Two in particular should be recalled in light of yesterday’s decision: first, after Isidro Metapan won back-to-back titles during the 2008-09 season, CONCACAF decided to award El Salvador’s second berth in the 2009-10 CCL not to Aguila (the second-best team in the full-year table, only after Metapan), but to Chalatenango, the best of the two runners-up in the previous season. After Chalate self-relegated, the berth then fell to Luis Angel Firpo based on, I quote, “the second-best cumulative record among the runners-up in the El Salvadoran Apertura and Clausura championships” (emphasis mine).

One could argue, perhaps, that hand-me-down spots in Central America are not restricted to only champions and runners-up, as are the regular berths. But then, what do we make of Panama? In the 2009-10 season, Arabe Unido won both tournaments, defeating Tauro in the Apertura Final and San Francisco in the Clausura Final. As the higher-placed runner-up, Tauro subsequently assumed the PAN2 spot. Now, if hand-me-down spots were awarded based on the full-year table with no further restrictions, then the one given to Panama for the 2010-11 CCL should have gone to Atletico Chiriqui, who finished the 2008-09 year with 68 points (only below Arabe Unido on 69). So who got the nod? San Francisco, the other runner-up.

If CONCACAF had diverged from the practice of favoring champions and runners-up in Central America, would it have cost them to announce as much in advance? Because as far as I can tell, based on every available precedent, Once Municipal should have received the extra spot in the next CCL, not FAS. Full disclosure: I have written to Once Municipal on the subject, and based on their response, at the very least they agree that their club has a case for challenging CONCACAF’s decision. Time will tell if anything comes of their efforts; but if more authorities in our region emulated the foresight of the FMF, such situations would not arise in the first place.

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