Congratulations CONCACAF! You finally get to sit at the big kids table in international football. After years of fighting and scratching to gain even a crumb of recognition from football fans across the world, the region of North and Central America and the Caribbean finally has the world’s attention.
One would think that the region would be jumping up and down for joy with the Women’s World Cup and Men’s Gold Cup having finished and with Tigres playing in the Copa Libertadores final. But with the officials being carted off to prison and the shining light of the United States dirtied by its own internal issues a time for celebration is now a time for concern.
There seems to be a clash of thoughts right now when it comes to the CONCACAF Gold Cup and CONCACAF as a region. On one hand the region is praised for the development of teams and leagues in Jamaica, Honduras – not this tournament but they have made the World Cup two consecutive times – Panama, Haiti, El Salvador, and Guatemala. Players are playing at more advanced levels in club football and getting a higher level of football education than ever before.
These improvements point to the increased resources that the local football associations have received from CONCACAF, and to a lesser extent, FIFA. But this funding question inevitably brings up the very disturbing allegations of racketeering, fraud, and bribery.
Where does the money that these football associations need come from? What did their football association Presidents have to do to secure such funds? Could such deals be perceived as detrimental in the long-term to the league?
It is impossible to separate CONCACAF’s success without looking at the scrupulous business practices that could bring FIFA down. For as exciting as both of these tournaments were, the scars of CONCACAF were present not just with the female players forced to play on artificial turf but also in the numerous questionable calls made by officials at the Gold Cup.
Let’s also make something clear: these regions are still struggling to make ends meet. Lost in the news during Jamaica’s great run to the CONCACAF Gold Cup final was the news that Montego Bay United may be stripped of their 2015-2016 CONCACAF Champions League bid because of poor pitch conditions.
The entire Caribbean Football Union is under an economic crisis; the latter rounds of the Caribbean Football Union Club Championships were scrubbed due to teams not being able to field players.
Even Trinidad and Tobago, home to former FIFA Vice President and avid reader of satirical website ‘The Onion’ Jack Warner, have large scale structural problems. While Warner was allegedly making $10 million dollars off of bribes from the South African Football Association, the T and T football association sent their women’s team to the 2014 CONCACAF Championship with just $500.
The men’s team was not treated much better with players from their famed 2006 World Cup run only receiving their World Cup appearance fees eight years later. And that was only after the players took the football association to court.
Officiating is obviously the big issue, with Mexico’s two questionable penalties being put under a microscope. But is it the referee’s fault that he cannot make the accurate call, or is it the fault of the FA and CONCACAF, who have not increased funding for referee training and resources for 15 years. The game is continuously improving, so why is it that the level of refereeing is not?
The United States is both the reason for why things have improved in CONCACAF, and why the region seems to be on the decline. Players all throughout the Caribbean and Central America are being given opportunities to play in North America’s five divisions of football, earn a pay cheque that will not bounce, and build a career that could potentially transfer over to Europe or other parts of the world.
Youth academies and colleges are also investing in these players and although the quality of play might not be the best, the training and preparation aspects are much better than in their home countries.
Anyone who was looking towards U.S. Soccer for hope in purging the region and FIFA of corruption were probably just a bit dismayed during the recent U.S. Senate sub-committee hearing. Here was a great opportunity for U.S. Soccer Vice President Dan Flynn to show that U.S. Soccer was leading the charge to clean up CONCACAF and the game.
Instead U.S. Soccer waffled under pressure. When asked if his organization knew of any corruption issues within FIFA Mr. Flynn said,
I knew nothing about any corruption.
That is an interesting statement. After all, it was not as if one of the major investors of the North American Soccer League, the second division for club soccer in Canada and the United States, plead guilty to fraud. Or that they currently have a grievance filed against them from in regards to not being properly compensating youth academy teams for players signing professional contracts. Or that match fixing has occurred on American soil during previous Gold Cups.
Senator Richard Blumenthal seemed to have the organisation’s attitude captured perfectly when he said
There had to be either wilful ignorance or blatant incompetence.
So how does one weigh the problems that CONCACAF faces with the obvious excitement and interest that these tournaments have produced? The answer seems to be that when change does come to this region and to FIFA that there are pieces of this game that can be salvaged.
Football needs to continue to invest in the developing world and in the youth game but it needs to be done so in a more responsible manner. The strides that have been made to level the quality of play in the world should not be erased. CONCACAF is certainly not the first nor will it be the last organization tied to these difficult political issues currently surrounding the game.
But the organisations flaws are at the centre of the current turmoil so it can either take the lead in reform or continue to operate as a lesser football region.