The Gold Cup organizers' dream matchup would be a tournament finale between the U.S. and Mexico on Sunday in Chicago. Their nightmare scenario is Canada-Guadeloupe.
The strengths and weaknesses of CONCACAF are symbolized by the final four teams in the Gold Cup. The U.S. has the economy and infrastructure to showcase the region's soccer on the international stage. Mexico has the passion, population and television money. No other countries really count.
When a Guadeloupe does emerge, it captures the imagination, as Jamaica and Trinidad & Tobago did at recent World Cups. But the vast discrepancies between the region's juggernauts and the have-nots create problems. Not for the first time, there have been accusations of favoritism and Costa Rica coach Hernan Medford said the Gold Cup's credibility is at risk after five Mexican opponents (two Panamanians, three Costa Ricans) were red carded in two games.
And Medford has surely seen it all, having played in Austria, Mexico, Spain, Yugoslavia and Italy's Serie A with Foggia after the 1990 World Cup.
The Gold Cup has enormous potential, but it depends too much on the Big Two. Both Mexico and the U.S. are guaranteed to advance to the World Cup finals, since the qualifying tournament takes place over a long period of time. But there is less margin for error in the Gold Cup, so a Canada or Panama can sneak into the finals. There is no sure-fire solution to the problem. The underdog countries make the competition interesting. And the only way for the quality of soccer to improve in the region is through tournaments such as the Gold Cup.
So, there will be growing pains. The 1998 Gold Cup final between the U.S. and Mexico attracted 91,255 fans to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, plus an overflow of 12,000 to the Sports Arena next door for a live big-screen showing. The next Gold Cup final was to be a showcase event, with FIFA officials invited. But a cold snap hit Los Angeles and, worse, Canada and Colombia reached the 2000 final, along with an announced 7,000 spectators.
CONCACAF re-evaluated the Gold Cup, switched to a summer schedule in 2003, and has now set its sights northward. There were no invited guests this year and the tournament was able to stand on its own. Crowds have been consistent in Carson, Calif., East Rutherford, N.J., Foxboro, Mass., and Miami and huge in Houston. But this Gold Cup's financial success depends largely on the semifinals and how Mexico does in Chicago.
So, to avoid the Canada-Guadeloupe nightmare scene in the future, CONCACAF will have to encourage improvement throughout the region and also emphasize other story lines, such as promoting the region as a producer of talent. Ricardo Osorio and Pavel Pardo won a Bundesliga title with Stuttgart this year, Carlos Salcido a Dutch title with PSV Eindhoven and Rafa Marquez has won La Liga with Barcelona. Honduran Oscar David Suazo is a notch above the region's other forwards and is on the verge of a move from Cagliari to either Serie A winner Inter or AC Milan.
There might be no place on the planet producing more professional talent per capita than Guadeloupe (pop. 470,000). Marius Tresor was among the first from the island to emerge with the French national team in the '70s. Jocelyn Angloma continued the trend, moving from Guadeloupe to France, then was replaced at right back on the national team by Lilian Thuram. Angloma, 41, came out of retirement to play for the land of his birth. As an overseas department of France, Guadeloupe is ineligible for the World Cup and, should it overcome 21-to-1 odds in the Gold Cup, also ineligible for the Confederations Cup in 2009 (The Gold Cup winner will represent CONCACAF at that tournament). Guadeloupe's Gold Cup roster includes 12 Europe-based players, including Stephane Auvray, a commanding midfield presence who is with Vannes OC in France's second division.
Canadian soccer does not have great appeal now. But the success of Toronto FC is tapping into a vein of popularity. And Canada will play host to the FIFA U-20 World Cup this summer and the '09 Gold Cup.
In any case, Canada and Guadeloupe will play a big part in determining whether the Gold Cup glitters this year.
Frank Dell'Apa is a soccer columnist for The Boston Globe and ESPN.