On American Integration: Making Expansion Stick

Posted on November 2, 2012 8:52 pm

For those of us who dream of seeing CONCACAF’s finest regularly test themselves against high-profile South American opponents between World Cups, the reality of football politics at both the continental and FIFA levels is clear: an expanded Copa América is the best, most feasible way to make it happen. While negotiations continue on the 2016 Centenario, though, it is imperative that CONCACAF’s leadership (especially Justino Compean and Sunil Gulati) prepare the groundwork for a long-term arrangement with CONMEBOL.

As I warned back when the deal between the Brazilian Football Confederation (CBF) and its Chilean counterpart was struck, CONMEBOL already anticipates a return to the status quo with the 2019 Copa América, following its Centennial extravaganza. In anticipation of both the 2016 tournament and subsequent internal pressure to retain access to the biggest competition in the Hemisphere, CONCACAF President Jeffrey Webb, General Secretary Enrique Sanz and the Executive Committee should lobby for the establishment of a new normal, with CONCACAF receiving six permanent guest spots in the Copa América. Here, I will propose two approaches that CONCACAF can take in pursuing this goal.

Approach One: Accommodation

Given that the Gold Cup serves as their primary source of revenue, CONCACAF would seek to gain from collaboration in the Copa América at least what they currently make in the off-beat edition of their own championship. It appears qualitatively unfair, however, for CONCACAF to collect funds from two continental championships in a World Cup cycle while CONMEBOL only gets to celebrate one. And based on the revelations of CONCACAF ex-General Secretary Chuck Blazer, a straight swap of guest spots is not the answer: in his astounding tirade last year, he accused CONMEBOL President Nicolas Leoz of both backing out of an agreement to send teams to the Gold Cup and charging exorbitant fees for said guest appearances.

With this in mind, the first approach exhorts Webb and co. to do the following:

- Emphasize the benefits of an expanded Copa América that are independent of location.

The most immediate ones that deserve mention are the improvement to the format and access to the North American English-language market. For the former, a 16-team championship allows for a smoother elimination process, without the inter-group competition for one of the “best third-place finisher” spots. Of course, the market issue will be of greater interest to CONMEBOL, and here Gulati can interject with an explanation of the future landscape in his country.

It is true that the US English-language broadcasting rights went to GolTV, rather than a mainstream network, the last time the US played in the Copa América. The 2009 Confederations Cup, however, demonstrated to ESPN that the US national team could drum up major interest outside of the World Cup finals; and with Fox winning the World Cup rights from 2015 through 2022, ESPN, NBC and perhaps even beIN Sport will be interested in adding a major continental championship to their properties. The 2016 Centenario, as the biggest men’s soccer tournament to take place in the US since the 1994 World Cup, would practically be a shoe-in for a major network; and the future editions taking place in the year between the World Cup and the Euro would attract substantial bids as a summer event with little competition (given the unavailability of the Women’s World Cup).

- Offer to purchase the guest spots.

With respect to the aforementioned unfairness of CONCACAF splitting the Copa América earnings with CONMEBOL and keeping those from the Gold Cup to themselves, the imbalance could be redressed through the two sides agreeing on a fee per guest berth, with CONCACAF either paying up front or agreeing to have that amount deducted from its share of the tournament revenue. These fees could be negotiated following the 2016 edition, at which point both sides will have a clearer idea of how much they expect to gain from future championships.

- Commit to a more conciliatory stance on Mexican participation in CONMEBOL events.

Besides holding the Gold Cup as a quadrennial event in the year after the Copa América (e.g. 2020), in order to avoid requiring teams to split their squads for two summer tournaments, CONCACAF’s leadership would complete the reverse from Blazer’s policy by committing not to impose any restrictions on Mexico’s team selection for Chile 2015. Furthermore, the return of Mexican clubs to the Copa Sudamericana can be put on the table with little cost to CONCACAF: while CONMEBOL would be overjoyed at the chance to extract more money from Mexican television networks, one wonders if the Mexican Football Federation (FMF) would even be interested in taking up the eventual offer, what with all the Liga MX teams not involved in the CONCACAF Champions League participating in the revived Copa MX.

- Suggest a North American bidding process for hosting rights.

Don’t get me wrong: the tournament is a CONMEBOL production first and foremost, and the suggestion of including CONCACAF in the hosting rotation is too controversial to merit discussion. There exists a non-intrusive alternative, however, that would provide the bonus of direct outside investment in South American football.

CONMEBOL currently rotates hosting duties for the Copa América among its membership, with the 2023 edition slated for Ecuador, according to the order established between 1987 and 2007. Normally, if the Ecuadorean Football Federation (FEF) decided not to host for whatever reason (from inadequate infrastructure to interest in a future edition), they would either swap responsibilities with another CONMEBOL member or simply opt out. Given a collaborative agreement with CONCACAF, however, the FEF would have the option of inviting and evaluating northern bids for its hosting duties. On the other side, Mexico has actively campaigned to host a Copa América for years; and with the US out of the picture (for recency, as well as stronger interest in the 2026 World Cup), the FMF would enthusiastically negotiate a fee for buying the rights from Ecuador. CONMEBOL would not have to worry about this becoming a regular occurrence, with the likes of Uruguay, Chile, Argentina and Colombia unlikely to give bids the time of day; other federations, though (e.g. Bolivia and Paraguay) may welcome such an initiative.

Approach Two: Hardball

There is a more direct means of getting CONMEBOL to agree on future collaboration; but in order to pull this one off, Webb would need to have all his ducks in a row, specifically getting Compean on board.

CONCACAF has one major source of leverage in these negotiations: Mexico. There is nothing, not a single statute anywhere in football, that obligates CONCACAF to allow Mexican clubs and/or the national team to take part in events under the auspices of another Confederation. Thus, Webb could provide Leoz with an ultimatum: agree to the expanded Copa América, or CONCACAF will refuse to authorize any Mexican participation in future CONMEBOL tournaments. If CONMEBOL took exemption to this and brought the issue to FIFA, CONCACAF would find a ready-made ally in UEFA, who have already argued for the end of guest teams.

The danger of adopting such an approach without Mexican support can be summed up in a hypothetical nightmare headline:

“MEXICO WITHDRAWS FROM GOLD CUP”

The FMF would have to pay a fine, to be certain, but that pales in comparison to how badly CONCACAF’s finances would be crippled by missing out on the 60,000+ crowds and Hispanic television revenue on both sides of the Rio Grande.

Unless the consensus exists to take a hard line (and “consensus” is hardly the word anyone associates with CONCACAF these days), the first approach would have a greater chance of producing the desired result. However it gets done, whatever minor concessions need to be made, CONCACAF’s leadership must push for an expanded Copa América beyond 2016. The benefits for our national teams, for the sport’s profile in our region, for the Copa América itself and for their own pockets are simply too big to be satisfied with a one-off.

Finally, here is a brief preview of what you can expect for the next few months.

First, out of the 11 CCL berths that are claimed between August and December, nine remain vacant. Over the next few weeks, we will track the playoffs in the US, Mexico and Central America, where clubs will fight for both domestic glory and continental action next year (or at least get one foot in, for the eventual champions in Belize and Nicaragua).

In the same window, the second round of qualifying for the Caribbean Cup will finish up with matches in Grenada and Trinidad and Tobago. The four survivors will join the Dominican Republic, Martinique, defending champions Jamaica and hosts Antigua and Barbuda in the Caribbean Cup finals, from which the four semifinalists will qualify for the 2013 Gold Cup.

On the other side of the planet, CCL winners Monterrey will attempt to improve on their lackluster showing a year ago when they face their Asian counterparts in the Club World Cup quarterfinals. A victory will guarantee them a memorable encounter with none other than Chelsea; anything less, and they will likely join Pachuca and Toluca on the list of temporarily successful Mexican clubs that failed to leave their mark on an era.

After the winter break, the last participants in the Gold Cup will be determined through the 2013 Copa Centroamericana in Costa Rica. The tournament will double as a January camp for Panama, Honduras and the hosts, as they examine depth players ahead of the opening Hexagonal matchday in February. And while the cream of the crop in our region tussle and scrum for access to the World Cup finals in Brazil, the remaining participants in the 2012-13 Champions League will resume their own international campaigns in early March. The football promises to be abundant – and we haven’t even touched all that the summer will bring.

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