Is the Centenary Copa America going to go ahead? The tournament is scheduled to take place in the USA next June. It has been included in the FIFA calendar. But it has yet to be confirmed.
The obvious problem is the corruption crisis that erupted last May with the US investigation and the arrest of 14 people – 9 FIFA officials and 5 corporate executives. It was seen as a FIFA scandal, but in fact the scope was localised. The problems were to be found in the interface between Latin American TV companies and the region’s football administrators. The evidence points to a scenario where the TV rights have been sold for considerably less than the market price as a consequence of bribes to officials. And all this has taken place in the Concacaf and Conmebol regions – those involved in the Centenary Copa. The competition proposes to include the 10 South American nations plus 6 from the north and central Americas plus the Caribbean.
And so, with the projected kick off just nine months away, there is organisational paralysis. There are legal problems, but there is also an additional doubt; does everyone involve really want the competition to go ahead?
It seems clear that South America, Conmebol, wants to push on. It is, after all, their centenary; 2016 marks a hundred years of the Copa America, the world’s oldest continental competition. “We want to do it,” said Conmebol president Juan Angel Napout to a Paraguayan radio station last week. “The 100 year mark is important, and has to be celebrated. We’ve been talking to the Concacaf people, and we’re going to keep talking.
“We want to continue on the lines that we’ve been following, and hold a tournament together with Concacaf. But we understand the moment that they are going through, and we don’t want to force anyone to do anything. What I can state is that the 100 years will be celebrated, and it will happen on the pitch.”
Hardly surprisingly, Napout’s comments led to gossip and unconfirmed reports that the USA wanted nothing to do with the tournament, either in terms of hosting or taking part. Colombia and Ecuador were floated as possible alternative venues, although this was quickly denied by Luis Chiriboga, president of the Ecuadorian FA.
The competition, then, is in serious trouble – which is probably exactly where it deserves to be.
There was always something desperately cynical about the plans to stage the tournament in the USA. The birth of the Copa America in 1916 is a hugely significant moment in the development of the global game. Held almost annually in the early stages, it was responsible for a rapid rise in playing standards and in interest in the game in the continent’s south cone – in Brazil, but especially in Argentina and Uruguay.
A direct line can be drawn between the birth of the Copa and the inaugural World Cup just 14 years later; boosted by experience gained in the Copa, Uruguay stunned everyone by waltzing their way to the gold medal in the 1924 Paris Olympics, a feat they repeated four years later in Amsterdam, with Argentina collecting the silver.
Observers were astonished. They had never before seen football played with such an artistic flourish. With the English professionals banned from the Olympics, there had to be a new competition, open to all comers, to find out who really was best – the World Cup.
The first Copa America, then, is a profound moment, and one of which South America should be proud. Holding a commemorative competition in the US smacks of selling out the moment in a spirit of greed.
There is also the problem of overkill. Six South American sides were in action during the World Cup, and all of them played this year’s Copa America in Chile. Another competition in 2016 would mean that, if selected, some of the world’s best players would have a third consecutive year without adequate holidays. And staging the thing in the middle of the most gruelling World Cup qualification campaign on the planet is surely putting too much of a burden on the players. Peru would certainly seem to think so. Their preliminary plan for the Centenary Copa has been to take an Under-23 side – and a tournament full of understrength and experimental squads is surely no way to celebrate a centenary.