Saturday, 18 June 2011
Is there any point to the Gold Cup?
United States v Mexico and Mexico v United States. Those have been the hardly surprising participants in the last two Gold Cup finals.
Looking further back to its formation 20 years ago there has been a bit more variety in the names on the finals board; Honduras, Costa Rica, Panama and Canada have all made appearances. However, these names hide the sad reality of the uncompetitive nature of football in North America. Those finalists were generally only able to make it that far thanks to favours from invited nations who had knocked out the dual powers of the continent in earlier rounds.* In the nine tournaments to be completed since 1991, Mexico and the US have won eight and on only one occasion (Canada’s victory over Mexico in 2000) has a CONCACAF member outside the big two knocked one of them out.
This year there has been the tiniest of twists in the tale. The States’ 2-1 defeat to Panama on Saturday evening has been the highlight of the competition and a great result for the CONCACAF region as a whole. It silenced critics who had begun to wonder why Mexico and the US didn’t just plat a Confederations Cup playoff every four years and save themselves the hassle of torching minnows in a relatively meaningless competition every two years.
But, as great as it was for Panamese football, did that result make any difference? Whilst it allowed Panama to top the group, the bizarre system that allows 8 teams from 12 to progress from the group stages meant the hosts were never in any danger of not qualifying. The organisers build in insurance clause in the draw, so that even in the unforeseen event of either of the big two not topping their group they would still be kept apart till the final, means that in all likelihood the two will meet again come next Saturday in Los Angeles.
Away from the questions over competitiveness there are other issues that the federation must consider. The most pressing is why there is a need for the competition every two years? Major championships in other regions such as the Copa America, European Championships and Asian Cup all operate under an every four-year format.
The repetition and general uncompetitive nature of the Gold Cup can be draining enough for many international fans and players, that they have to experience it every two years (one without the added incentive of qualification for the pre-World Cup warm up in the Confederations Cup) can make it even more of an non-event.
The only advantage of an every two-year format is to give the smaller nations such as El Salvador, Guadeloupe, Cuba, etc more competitive international experience. However, that brings up another issue regarding CONCACAF’s premier competition.
The past 10 competitions have been hosted or co-hosted (in 2003 and 1993 Mexico co-hosted) by the United States.
I understand the States has the best and biggest stadia, large immigrant populations from many of the competing nations and provides the best advertising and corporate opportunities to cash in on (and we all know how the CONCACAF big wigs like to hear the till bell ring more than most). But if football is to grow in the region, what is the harm in moving the tournament to Canada? Not a big enough fan base? Then Mexico, it certainly has the stadia and numbers to fill them. And what about those smaller countries that a two-year format is supposed to favour? What would be better to boost their participation than hosting the tournament in Honduras or Jamaica, Panama or Costa Rica?
Logistics would obviously be an issue but with only 12 teams and a maximum of 25 games (if the 12 into eight format is continued), four stadia would suffice.
It may sound like madness to many but something radical is needed to shine up the image of the Gold Cup, both on its own continent and further afield, if it is to be a successful and interesting tournament in the coming years.
*In previous years nations such as Brazil, Colombia and South Korea were invited to create a balance in the number of teams competing.