The problem with the Copa America Centenario
The oldest continental competition in the world, the Copa America, was first played in 1916. Four countries participated -- one of them was Chile, who have still never won it. The others were Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay, who between them have gone on to accumulate nine World Cup wins.
The seeds for such triumphs were planted in the early years of the Copa America -- played almost annually until the Great Depression. The three countries (and essentially this is a tale of three cities -- Montevideo, Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro, with a nod to Sao Paulo) pushed each other, learned from each other and improved together. Uruguay were quickest out of the blocks -- largely because enlightened social policies in the country meant that football spread down from the elite to the masses quicker than it did in Brazil. The top goal scorer of the first Copa was Uruguay's Isabelino Gradin, a black striker of humble origins, and as such a wonderfully fitting symbol of his team's triumph.
So effective was the Copa America in raising playing standards that in 1924 Uruguay arrived unheralded for the Paris Olympics and promptly wiped the floor with all comers on the way to the gold medal, sparking off a fever for the game and effectively ensuring that the World Cup would be created, so that professionals and amateurs could compete together to find out which country was best. There is plenty, then, to commemorate in two years' time when the Copa America reaches its centenary.
This is a story that has nothing to do with the United States. But it is there that the Centenary Cup will take place, with the 10 South American teams joined by six from the CONCACAF region.
There is an air of cynicism about the whole thing, for it is far from obvious that a tournament held in the U.S. is an appropriate way for South America to register its own tradition. But it does give a cover story to the motive of CONMEBOL (the South American Confederation) getting its hands on some of those dollars!
A merger between CONMEBOL and CONCACAF would surely seem to be out of the question. CONMEBOL has only 10 members, and would be submerged by the numbers of CONCACAF.
The strength of CONMEBOL at the negotiating table has nothing to do with numbers; it is based on history -- the continent staged the first World Cup and has won it nine times -- and on the present day fact that it continues to produce some of the biggest stars of the global game. CONCACAF brings little to the table on either count. From a South American point of view, there is nothing to be gained from a formal merger -- but plenty to be gained from cherry picking the best of CONCACAF and gaining access to a massive and lucrative TV market.
This explains why Mexican clubs are invited to participate in the Copa Libertadores, South America's equivalent of the Champions League. And many see the inclusion of clubs from the MLS as a viable objective.
There are two problems here.
One is geographical: We are dealing with different hemispheres. Buenos Aires and Mexico City are further apart than London and Mumbai. Add the travelling time to, say, Toronto, and absurd demands are being made on the players.
The other problem is political: The best, most powerful and most prestigious areas of CONCACAF may well enjoy being sucked into CONMEBOL competitions, with all the tradition and exposure to high-level opposition this entails. But this is most likely to happen at the expense of the weaker CONCACAF areas that would be left on the outs. There are even teams in the region unable to compete in the CONCACAF Champions League because they simply cannot afford the travelling expenses. Dealing with this problem -- strengthening its own premier club competition -- should surely be the priority of CONCACAF, which should feel a certain alarm at the prospect of its strongest areas being enticed down south.
Perhaps the long-term future lies in some kind of quick tournament featuring the top teams from the Libertadores and the CONCACAF Champions League. In the cluttered organisation of contemporary football, however, this runs into problems of calendar -- which could be exactly the kind of challenge faced by the 2016 Centenary Cup.
After the establishment of the Copa America in 1916, the next most significant moment in the history of South America's national teams came 80 years later, in 1996, when the current marathon format of World Cup qualification came into being. Prior to that there were huge gaps -- often of years -- between competitive matches. Since 1996, though, the continent's teams have had the kind of calendar that European national teams take for granted, with regular competitive games, bringing guaranteed income and the possibility to retain a coach and build a team.
The consequences have been startling. Not too long ago, the likes of Ecuador and Venezuela were footballing equivalents of Luxembourg. Now the former are preparing for their third World Cup, and the latter keep getting closer to making their debut in the competition. South America showed its contemporary strength in depth in the last World Cup, when all five representatives gave a solid showing. Uruguay, fifth in the continent in qualifying, reached the semifinals. Paraguay pushed eventual champions Spain all the way in the quarterfinal.
But another effect of the extension of the World Cup qualifiers was that the Copa America was downgraded. The versions of 1997, 2001 and 2004 were especially weak, full of under-strength sides. The Copa has since found its place; it is now held every four years, and it starts off a new cycle. The next one will take place in Chile next year, where teams will be playing their first competitive matches since the World Cup -- indeed, for those teams that did not make it to Brazil, they will be playing their first competitive matches since last October. All of the sides will go to Chile hoping to emerge from the tournament whipped into shape for the next set of World Cup qualifiers, which kick off shortly afterward.
The problem for the 2016 Centenary Cup is that it comes in the middle of this qualifying process. The top players will have played the 2014 World Cup and the 2015 Copa America. They will be in need of a rest, saving themselves not only for their club sides, but also for the 2018 World Cup qualifiers.
The strong suspicion, then, is that the 2016 Centenary Cup will be full of experimental sides, which is perhaps what the competition deserves. But marking 100 years since one of the most important moments in the game's history certainly merits something better.