Gold Cup Qualifiers: Rivalries Galore

Posted on January 18, 2013 5:19 pm

During my undergraduate studies, one of my close friends bought me a copy of The Ball is Round: A Global History of Soccer by David Goldblatt as a gift. Over the winter break, I thumbed through the book in search of useful tidbits on the development of the game in our corner of the world; to characterize Goldblatt’s coverage of football’s growth in the CONCACAF region as underwhelming, however, would be generous. While the United States and Mexico receive a few pages, Central America and the Caribbean are flippantly disregarded as an underdeveloped backwater; remove the obligatory references to the Soccer War, and the sentences covering 15 percent of FIFA’s current membership would barely render a cumulative paragraph.

His brief review of the Central American sporting panorama in the 1970s, though, is particularly poignant with respect to this weekend’s events.

In Cuba, Guatemala, Honduras, Panama and Nicaragua baseball was by some way the most popular sport and ran football close in Costa Rica and El Salvador. 1

How times have changed: for the first time in its (short) history, the 2013 World Baseball Classic will not include a single team from Central America. The sporting focus of the entire isthmus, rather, rests on the football competition that begins today and will decide the sub-region’s representatives in the 2013 Gold Cup.

Here I will have to correct Germán Matamoros of La Nación: unfortunately, the next continental championship offers no berth in the Confederations Cup, since Mexico already claimed the honor in 2011 (to say nothing of the chronological order of this summer’s events). My thoughts on this topic are already on record; until a new reality is established in the Western Hemisphere, the biennial Gold Cup will continue to provide the necessary funds for maintaining the rest of CONCACAF’s portfolio of competitive events.

The five remaining participants in the 2013 edition will emerge from the Copa Centroamericana, which will take place over the next 10 days at the Estadio Nacional in Costa Rica. The hosts were drawn into Group A with Guatemala, Belize and Nicaragua, while Group B is comprised of Honduras, El Salvador and Panama. The top two in each group will qualify for the Gold Cup and advance to the semifinal round, while the third-place teams will contest a Fifth-Place Match for the last ticket to the US.

Matchday 1 will commence today at 5:00 p.m. (all times EST) with Nicaragua taking on Guatemala; and after the pinoleros shocked the region by qualifying for the 2009 Gold Cup at Guatemala’s expense, this match carries immediate implications in the contest for second place in Group A. Old foes Honduras and El Salvador will kick things off in Group B later on at 7:00 p.m., while Costa Rica will make their debut at 9:00 p.m. against one of their own, Le Roy Lewis, who recently took the reins in Belize.

I must admit no shortage of excitement, though, at what awaits us on Sunday: from 3:00 p.m. on, three straight rivalry matches will showcase Central American football at its finest, nastiest and most entertaining. First, Guatemala and Belize will reenact their World Cup showdowns from two years ago, in which the latter forced the chapines to struggle for all six points. As the only Central American nation yet to reach the Gold Cup, raising the possibilities of that maiden appearance at their begrudging neighbor’s expense would prove especially sweet for Deon McCauley and co.

Later, at 5:00 p.m., Panama and El Salvador will revive the rivalry borne of their own World Cup second-round series in 2008, with the canaleros still fuming at the aggressively hostile treatment they received at the Estadio Cuscatlan en route to a surprisingly early exit. The Salvadorans, for their part, have suspected Panamanians involved in football of desiring to exact revenge for that 3-2 aggregate victory ever since; and in the 2009 Copa UNCAF, after Panamanian referee Roberto Moreno sent off two Salvadorans in their semifinal with Costa Rica, the team protested by literally quitting the game: with all the subs used, three players went down injured at the same time, forcing a forfeit with fewer than the minimum seven available to continue play. Of course, Panama’s elimination of El Salvador in the 2011 Gold Cup through a dubious Luis Tejada equalizer did little to smother the flames; and if the cuscatlecos come up empty against Honduras today, Julio César Dely Valdés’s side will gladly pursue the chance to wrap up a Gold Cup spot at their expense.

Finally, at 7:00 p.m., Costa Rica will face off against Nicaragua, their archrivals in practically everything except sport. As I mentioned during the Caribbean Cup, the remarkable improvement by the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua is just as likely to spark heated derbies with their neighbors as the US’s rise did to the Rio Grande Clásico with Mexico. Real Estelí already served notice of Nicaragua’s potential to frustrate the progress of their more football-obsessed neighbors when they held Alajuelense to two victories by the samllest of margins in the current CONCACAF Champions League, and any points gained by the national team will go a long way towards qualifying for the Gold Cup outright in the group stage.

Those of you who have GOLTV can follow proceedings on their network; otherwise, you will be able to watch the games online with the following rudimentary table (Panama’s TV Max, Nicaragua’s Canal 6 and Costa Rica’s Columbia Radio may cover the tournament as well).

Matchday / Game / Repretel Channel (Costa Rica) / RPCTV (Panama)

1 / GUA-NCA / 11 / No
1 / HON-SLV / 4 / Yes
1 / CRC-BLZ / 6 / Yes

2 / BLZ-GUA / 6 / Yes
2 / PAN-SLV / 6 / Yes
2 / CRC-NCA / 6 / No

Unfortunately, exam preparations will prevent me from keeping up with Sunday’s action; but I will be back at my earliest convenience to update the qualifier list. And it should be noted that if Costa Rica and Guatemala win their matches and El Salvador lose theirs, all four of the “early” berths will be spoken for, leaving only the mystery of the Fifth-Place Match contestants to be resolved on Tuesday.

A couple of side notes before I close: did you know that Haiti is the third-best team in CONCACAF, according to the latest FIFA rankings? While the temptation exists to brag about les Grenadiers‘ place among the top 40 national teams in the world, the more rational side of me wonders whether “confederation-level qualifiers” are overvalued in FIFA’s calculations. In August 2012, before embarking on their Caribbean Cup campaign, Haiti were ranked 80th in the world. Should victories over Puerto Rico, Bermuda, Guyana, Grenada, the aforementioned Dominicans and Antigua and Barbuda really have been worth an ascension of 42 spots? Perhaps dropping the “importance” multiplier of a “confederation-level qualifier” from 2.5 to 2 would result in a more accurate reading of the relative strength of teams in our region.

And congratulations are in order for Brett Corbit and Derek Richey of The Straight Red Card, who spent their two-month hiatus from BigSoccer on some mundane side projects…you know, like helping bring professional football back to their home city. You can hear them discuss the Brickyard Battalion’s role in making the new NASL Indianapolis club a reality in the latest MLSSoccer.com March to the Match podcast; on my end, I sincerely hope for Indy to show up on The Regional Review’s radar in the near future.

Gold Cup 2013 Qualifiers

1. Mexico
2. USA
3. Canada
4. Trinidad and Tobago
5. Haiti
6. Martinique
7. Cuba
8. Costa Rica

1 – Goldblatt, David. The Ball is Round: A Global History of Soccer. New York: Riverhead Books, 2006. pp. 531-532.

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