If you’re walking the streets this Saturday in the United States or Mexico, don’t be surprised if you get smacked in the head by patriotism draped in either a U.S. or Mexican flag.
No, it isn’t a national holiday per se; it’s the inaugural CONCACAF Cup, a tournament created out of thin air by regional soccer dictators which pits the winners of the last two Gold Cups—the biennial tournament between teams in North America, the Caribbean, and Central America—against one another. To few people’s surprise, those two teams are the U.S. and Mexico.
The CONCACAF Cup winner, as regional champion, will be bequeathed a most treasured spot in the 2017 Confederations Cup in Russia, a competition that will see Russia and all the champions from the other regions battle for a title that, arguably, no one really cares about.
To many, the CONCACAF Cup is just another random game, because CONCACAF could very easily just send the winner of the most recent Gold Cup (Mexico, in 2015) to Russia as CONCACAF’s representative. So its existence, together with the biennial Gold Cups, is just an example of the U.S. and Mexican soccer federations printing money because more money is always a fun thing to have.
Aside from Canada, Mexico and the U.S. are the two richest countries in the region and the two kings of the hill. Between the two, they’ve won every Gold Cup but one. In that context, this Saturday’s CONCACAF Cup looks like a gerrymandered way to basically guarantee yet another somewhat meaningful U.S.-Mexico game. I know. You can hardly contain your excitement. You’ve psychologically prepared yourself from birth for this moment, for U.S. vs. Mexico ad nauseum.
Of course, for many, it’s all gotten a bit old. Yet for a not insignificant number of U.S. and Mexico fans, Gold Cups, the underlying reason for Saturday’s game, happen too often and are just minefields, a series of games against lesser opponents where the objective is simply to avoid tripwires. But is that really an accurate characterization of the tournament, or have we been watching too long with U.S. and Mexico-tinted glasses?
The Gold Cup happens more often than its regional counterparts. Both Copa America, South America’s regional tournament, and the European Championship, its European cousin, take place every four years. This isn’t because the talent on display in CONCACAF is particularly awe-inspiring. From a cynical perspective, the rationale is pretty simple: money.
However, the view from the bottom is different than from the top. Most U.S. and Mexico fans view the Gold Cup group stages as a formality, a mere exercise in running up the score on hapless faux-adversaries and avoiding injury. To add insult, both have sent “B teams” to past tournaments.
Yet for the rest of CONCACAF, the Gold Cup is a major event. Make no mistake, CONCACAF’s non-U.S. and Mexico nations aren’t just cranking out players made out of spare parts to bow at the feet of the region’s favorites. Honduras and Costa Rica have produced players for some of Europe’s top leagues and show up to compete. Panama, El Salvador, and Jamaica have (or have had) quality players in both Mexico’s Liga MX and Major League Soccer. The Gold Cup isn’t particularly overwhelming for these nations. However, for players from, say, Nicaragua, appearing before a packed Oakland Coliseum against an opponent like Mexico is a huge deal. For teams sitting below the region’s top teams, just getting to the Gold Cup is an accomplishment.
In 2007, Guadeloupe made a shocking run to the Gold Cup semifinals. To fully grasp the magnitude of the tiny island’s run, if Guadeloupe had won the Gold Cup, it wouldn’t have been able to represent CONCACAF in the 2009 Confederations Cup in South Africa because FIFA doesn’t even recognize the tiny French-Caribbean nation.
So clearly whether more soccer is good or bad depends on where the assessor is standing. But CONCACAF could easily sell the benefits of more soccer by using a Robin Hood argument, looking no further than FIFA, its esteemed parent company, as a model.
As you’ve likely already heard, FIFA takes money from large corporate sponsors and then redistributes chunks of it to poor soccer federations via the GOAL program. Yes, lots of that money goes missing along the way, and some of the money has allegedly been exchanged for World Cup hosting votes. But for many developing nations, getting something is still better than getting nothing.
In a sense, the Gold Cup does the same thing, spreading a bit of wealth around North America, the Caribbean, and Central America. Smaller teams get the value of a unique playing experience and some much needed cash. Does most of the cash go to the U.S. and Mexico? Yes, that’s how the Reaganomics spigot trickles. But, again, something is better than nothing.
The results on the field speak volumes, even though all might not be easily attributed to access to games and cash. Most CONCACAF national teams today are more professional and competitive than before the Gold Cup existed. In the most recent Gold Cup, Jamaica upset the U.S. in the semifinals. In the prior edition, Panama knocked off Mexico.
The Gold Cup is a relatively new tournament (2015 was the 13th edition), but upsets happen with enough frequency that they no longer should automatically be designated as surprises. In 1991, 2000, 2002, 2005, 2013, and 2015, the U.S. and Mexico did not face each other in the final. Whether that’s a pattern remains to be seen, but perhaps the U.S. and Mexico aren’t as untouchable as often projected. Twenty-five years after qualifying for its first World Cup in 40 years, the U.S. still looks capable of losing to anyone on its day. And we also shouldn’t forget that Mexico is still indebted to Graham Zusi, a U.S. international, for scoring the goal against Panama, ninety-five seconds from the final whistle, that kept Mexico’s dream of going to the 2014 World Cup alive.
One team can defeat another on any given day—that’s the beauty of sport. And more games means more opportunities for the smaller, less affluent teams to develop, to make a name for themselves, and get players in front of more eyeballs. So when the next Gold Cup rolls around and the U.S. or Mexico rolls with a B team, don’t roll your eyes. Focus on the little guys. This game means more to them than you can imagine.
And as you take in the CONCACAF Cup this weekend between the U.S. and Mexico, it’s worth sparing a thought and prayer for the ascension of the region’s other teams because, competitively, the entire region stands to prosper when more than two teams are truly competing for the fancy titles.