Talk about the ultimate tease.
On Wednesday, CONMEBOL, the governing body of soccer in South America, announced that the 2016 Copa America will be held in the United States. In addition to the 10 South American teams that routinely participate, the expanded tournament would include six teams from CONCACAF -- the governing body in North America, Central America and the Caribbean -- with the U.S. and Mexico guaranteed to be among the participants.
The only problem, according to a source within U.S. Soccer, is that the United States Soccer Federation (USSF) and CONCACAF aren't completely on board. The word "premature" has been used to characterize CONMEBOL's announcement.
• What took you so long?
CONMEBOL made the decision Wednesday at a meeting in Buenos Aires, with the idea that the Copa America Centenario, as it will be known, will celebrate the 100-year anniversary of the confederation. On the surface, the decision is a win-win on a multitude of levels. It gives the tournament a clear shot of adrenalin, especially given the game's expanding profile in North America. Factor in the United States' historical support for big events and the growing U.S. interest in competitions like the European championships, and you have a tournament that is bound to be well-attended.
There is simply no way the American sporting public would pass up the opportunity to see the likes of Argentina's Lionel Messi, Brazil's Neymar, Colombia's Radamel Falcao and the other talents who will have emerged by then. All told, it would amount to a television rights bonanza for CONMEBOL.
The opportunity to host the tournament would be a coup for the U.S., as well, and would help ease the sting of losing out on the right to host the 2022 World Cup. It's not often that the U.S. program has the chance to play top-level competition in a tournament setting, and while there is ample evidence that CONCACAF is improving, the Gold Cup that crowns the top team in the region doesn't provide enough quality competition. The U.S. took part in the Copa America in 1993, 1995 and 2007, and hosting the 2016 edition would provide U.S. players with another vital layer of top international experience. And with five other CONCACAF nations participating, the benefits would be spread throughout the region to a degree.
The synergy of holding a Pan-American tournament seems obvious, given the depth of passion for the game in Central and North America and the size of the added markets. For that reason it's a wonder that the decision to create an expanded tournament wasn't made earlier.
But those reasons began to bubble to the surface on Thursday. For one, the tournament is not yet on FIFA's calendar, meaning clubs wouldn't be obligated to release players for a competition that would rely heavily on star power to make it compelling. Given that players would already be stretched thin by tournaments such as the 2015 Copa America and the 2017 Confederations Cup, not to mention World Cup qualifying, this would be no easy task. The 2016 Copa America would probably overlap with Euro 2016, meaning that the game's power brokers in Europe would likely take a dim view of having a direct competitor for media attention and money from sponsors. No doubt, they will make this known to the FIFA bigwigs in Zurich.
The other elephant in the room -- OK, perhaps the baby elephant -- centers on the future of the Gold Cup, CONCACAF's confederation championship, which at present is held every two years. If the expanded Copa were to be a success, the Gold Cup would run the risk of being even less relevant than it is now. It's highly unlikely that CONCACAF will accept this lying down. The organization relies on the biannual tournament to bring in enough money to fund programs and tournaments at the U-17 and U-20 level. If the Gold Cup were to vanish, so too would the funding for those programs, and that is something the member nations of CONCACAF -- in which each country gets one vote -- would never agree to.
CONCACAF does have a bit of leverage in that the Gold Cup that is held the year after the World Cup offers the chance to compete in the Confederations Cup. But even that carrot seems insufficient to stop the likes of Mexico and the U.S. from completely turning their backs on an expanded Copa America.
USSF president Sunil Gulati also released a statement on the matter. "While the idea of a Centennial tournament with some of the best teams in the hemisphere is certainly intriguing, it is not something we have agreed to host or participate in at this time. As CONCACAF stated, there are still a number of discussions that need to take place with CONMEBOL. U.S. Soccer would also need to be involved in discussions about hosting the tournament. We’re looking forward to those discussions in the near future."
So basically CONCACAF and the USSF are left in a quandary. There is almost universal support for the idea of an expanded Copa America, even within the USSF. The compelling nature of such a tournament would be too good to pass up. How then can they protect their interests? The most logical solution seems to be to reduce the Gold Cup to a once-every-four-years event, and find a monetary middle ground that will offset the loss of revenue that a second Gold Cup would bring.
One can only hope this will be the case.
Talk about the ultimate tease.