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For Gold Cup to grow bigger, should CONCACAF become smaller?

Sunday 7th July 2019
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The Concacaf Gold Cup is like Fathers Day. The early matches in every tournament feature so many soft teams it’s like ripping through gift paper. The final is the box inside. When opened, you must feign surprise at the tie within despite it invariably including the United States or Mexico, if not both. With apologies to Los Blancos and Blaugrana supporters alike, the duo is Concacaf's Real Madrid and Barcelona.

Spoiler alert: the USMNT and El Tri face off tonight for the first time in four finals, although one or the other has won every tournament but one since its inception in 1991. The sides search for their eighth and tenth titles respectively. Outside Mexico and Central America, however, few football enthusiasts pay attention to the Gold Cup. The United States men's team is arguably less popular than the women’s. American fans would rather watch the higher grade of football offered by Europe and South America. In large part, the sub-par quality is due to lack of competition in the region.

Beyond the two giants, a handful of smaller nations with significantly fewer resources of both the human and financial variety vie for the occasional upset in the tournament or World Cup qualifying. Costa Rica, Jamaica, Honduras, Panama and Trinidad have been the recent participants in the Hexagonal, aka the six-team final round robin for World Cup places. Haiti made a strong case to replace the fading Hondurans in this Gold Cup. Canada is the only other country to win a Gold Cup, defeating invitees Colombia in 2000. The other country with wealth and a sizeable population, the Canucks could be so much more but their top talent gravitates to ice hockey.

Setting aside Jamaica, Cuba, Haiti and the Dominican Republic, 27 of Concacaf’s 41 members are tiny Caribbean islands with slow economies and minimal populations. The federation is preparing to launch a Nations League to help them develop but there is only so much that can be done.

On the other side of the world, a similar problem exists. Australia left the Oceania Football Confederation in 2006 to find more competition in Asia. New Zealand now bully the 13 much smaller islands and archipelagos that comprise the OFC on their own. Every four years, the All Whites go through the motions to earn a play-in tie to the World Cup against a bubble team from another confederation.

The OFC and Concacaf have something else in common. Each has full and associate members. The nine associate members [3 OFC/6 Concacaf] are not affiliated with FIFA. Kiribati, Niue, Tuvalu, Bonaire, French Guiana, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Saint Martin and Sint Maarten can compete in the OFC Nations Cup or the CONCACAF Gold cup but not World Cup qualifying.

Five of the six Concacaf associate members are not independent nations. Rather, they are departments of France. Sint Maarten, which shares an island with Saint Martin, is a Dutch protectorate. The sextet’s best players are usually recruited by France or the Netherlands. Former Chelsea star Florent Malouda was born in French Guiana, played most of his international career with France but represented his homeland in the Gold Cup after retiring from Les Bleus.

It isn’t fealty to another country that precludes FIFA membership, however. The three OFC states, Kiribati, Niue and Tuvalu are all independent nations. As well, the US Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico are FIFA members despite their status as United States territories. The issue is FIFA.

Every FIFA member receives funding for football development from the organization. When a new member joins, it’s another mouth to feed. The organization has never turned away an application for membership. Instead, it makes the process so slow and onerous that many countries simply give up.

Each member receives a vote in FIFA’s congress. They have an equal voice in World Cup hosting rights and who is president. The more full members each confederation has, the more they can influence FIFA policy. Overall, however, existing members are reluctant to divide the pie into even smaller pieces as it will cost them vital funding. While there would be political and logistical consequences, the solution that might best provide growth opportunities for these tiny island nations would be to copy a page from cricket’s World Cup.

The International Cricket Council is a much smaller group. It’s 12 members are 199 fewer than FIFA in part by design. One member, Cricket West Indies, comprises Barbados, Guyana, Jamaica, Trinidad, the Leeward Islands [Anguilla, Antigua and Barbuda, the British Virgin Islands, Montserrat, Nevis, St Kitts, Sint Maarten and the US Virgin Islands] and Windward Islands [Dominica, Grenada, St Lucia and St Vincent & the Grenadines]

There is considerable overlap between Cricket West Indies’ 16 subsidiary associations and FIFA. Fifteen enjoy full FIFA membership with Nevis and St Kitts unified in football. Only Sint Maarten receives no funding from football’s governing body. In cricket, they have formed an alliance to be competitive on the global stage. Why couldn’t the larger number of smaller Caribbean islands with and without FIFA membership do the same?

Voting and funding would need to be sorted. The money might actually increase with a larger populace under one umbrella although Concacaf’s influence in FIFA would shrink significantly, from 41 votes to as few as 15. In exchange, the region’s competitive influence would have a sporting chance at growth, a common talent pool providing much-needed depth.

In the long term, a leaner Concacaf might merge with Conmebol to form one confederation for the entirety of the Americas. That’s a decision for another day, though. Logistical expenses for a West Indies team would be lightened with a unified training centre and youth academy on one of the larger islands, possibly Trinidad. In turn, larger nations would also find their travel burden eased.

Logistics would still be a problem in an Oceania merger because the South Pacific is so isolated. Rather than join the Asian federation, however, the unified islands and New Zealand could each be granted half a berth in the World Cup and play a two-legged tie against bubble teams from CAF, Concacaf, Conmebol or the AFC.

It’s a given that there is strength in numbers so why not allow these tiny nations to join forces. It can only make the game more competitive. Isn’t that what the public wants?

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Martin Palazzotto

The former editor of World Football Columns, Martin contributes frequently to Stretty News and is the author of the short story collection strange bOUnce. He has appeared in several other blogs which, sadly, have ceased to exist. He is old and likes to bring out defunct. Although football is his primary passion, the geezer enjoys many sports and pop culture forms. Expect them to intrude upon his meanderings for It's Round and It's White.

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