CONMEBOL Naming Argentina, Colombia as Copa America co-hosts poses all sorts of problems
While the 2019 Copa America kicks off in Brazil in just over two months' time, we now know at last where the next edition, the 2020 Copa America, will take place. It has taken a lot of backstage politics, but it has now been confirmed that next year's tournament will be joint-hosted by Argentina and Colombia.
The Copa is switching from odd to even years -- and this has created the opportunity to slide in an extra edition of the tournament in 2020. From a commercial point of view, it is a no contest. On the lines of the successful 2016 Copa America Centenario, the tournament should be held up north in the United States again. An offer was placed on the table by U.S. Soccer but it was rejected -- because the priorities now are political rather than financial.
Explaining its rejection, CONMEBOL spoke of "brining South American football to its fans" -- a declaration dipped in hypocrisy. After all, the organisation had no qualms about allowing the U.S. to stage the 100th version of the world's oldest continental competition, a far more important occasion than the 2020 edition of the tournament.
But the backdrop here is provided by another centenary -- that of the World Cup. Uruguay were the inaugural hosts back in 1930 and CONMEBOL are angling for the moment to be celebrated with a South American World Cup in 2030. Uruguay would have the showpiece games but with Montevideo as its only major city, there is no way that Uruguay could dream of staging a modern World Cup on its own. Enter neighbors Paraguay, Chile and, mainly Argentina for a proposed co-hosting arrangement.
In a 48-team, 2030 World Cup in South America, Argentina would be the workhorse, staging the bulk of the games. So it was a real problem last December when Argentina proved unable to stage its biggest club match ever, the Copa Libertadores final between rivals River Plate and Boca Juniors. Problems of crowd violence forced a switch to Madrid and it was in Spain's interests to ride to the rescue, as their hat is also in the ring to stage the 2030 World Cup.
So an extra Copa America is a godsend for Argentina, as it provides a chance to wipe the slate clean and get the 2030 South American World Cup campaign back on track. Argentina, then, was determined to seize the opportunity offered by a Copa in 2020.
Colombia, on the other hand, has every right to be enraged by this arrangement. The whole 2030 idea works against Colombia's interests. In theory they are next in line to stage a South American World Cup. They were originally named as hosts for 1986, but that proved way premature. Things have changed. They organised a successful Under-20 World Cup in 2011 and the country boasts an interesting number of urban centres. But if 2030 goes to the Uruguay-Argentina et al bid, Colombia will have a long wait ahead of them.
To rub further salt in the in the wound, when it comes to the Copa America, Argentina had one as recently as 2011 -- and plenty more before that. Colombia have only ever staged one, back in 2001 and so if there was an extra Copa going, and it was not heading to the U.S., then Colombia thought it should be solely theirs.
Earlier this year, when CONMEBOL rejected the U.S. offer, they tried to push through a compromise solution, with a tournament shared between Argentina and Colombia. The Colombians continued to lobby for exclusive rights but this week in Rio de Janeiro the final decision was made -- although splitting the competition in this way creates problems which will require further decisions down the line.
A glance at the map highlights the logistical problems. South America is huge, and Argentina and Colombia are at opposite ends of the continent. The flight between the two capitals Buenos Aires and Bogota, takes six and a half hours!
At the time the Copa is played -- June and July -- there are also massive differences in climate. It is mid-winter in the southern hemisphere, where Argentina can be bitterly cold that time of year. Colombia is full of regional differences. Bogota, at altitude, is cool but in Barranquilla, on the Caribbean coast, you can work up a sweat sitting in the shade sipping a fruit juice. Cali, another of the main centres, is also tropical.
Having two hosts so far apart also has a huge impact on the way the tournament is organised. The 2020 Copa will not feature the traditional three groups of four but instead two groups of six, one in each country. The top four from each group will qualify -- meaning that the tournament is longer than the current version, with 38 games rather than 26, as a consequence of a drawn-out and potentially dull group phase.
The division has already been made as with Argentina are neighbours Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay, Bolivia and one of the as yet undefined invited guests. In the north with Colombia are Brazil, Peru, Ecuador, Venezuela and the other to be determined guest.
Still undecided is the thorny issue of how and when the two groups cross over -- or, to put it more bluntly, which country gets the showpiece games. There is surely not enough time for extensive travel between the co-hosts, so will that mean, then, that the quarterfinals will be between teams from the same group -- teams who have already faced each other in the competition? And then where will the semifinals and final take place?
There is surely plenty more backstage politicking ahead before a final calendar is drawn up for next year's long-range version of the Copa America.