Peter Goldstein

Peter Goldstein is a professor at Juniata College in Pennsylvania in the USA. He has been World Cup crazy since 1966. He will share his views about the past, present and future of this event.

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The Brass Cup

    I live in the United States, home of CONCACAF, the world's best football confederation. Well, it's got the best name, anyway. Say it out loud: CON-CA-CAF. Catch the power of those alliterated C's, the rush of air in the F at the end, the majestic sweep of the three-syllable rhythm. CONMEBOL? Too many different sounds, no force. UEFA? Sounds like you've got a cold. CAF? Just CONCACAF Lite. AFC and OFC aren't even worth pronouncing. Yep, we're top of the class, all right. Come World Cup time, we catch the early planes home, but the name on the tickets is a winner all the way.

    But the confederation itself doesn't think so. A couple of years ago, looking around and noticing that CONCACAF had fewer World Cup representatives than anyone except Oceania, plus a laughable club competition, about a zillion minnows, and overall no respect whatsoever, the directors took decisive action: they changed the name. This was clearly ridiculous, but hey, it's the era of marketing, and there's nothing like a new label to attract attention. Look what it did for Prince. So the boys in the boardroom hired the best computer-age brains on the continent and came up with a fabulous new moniker, guaranteed to gain us the respect we so deeply deserve. The former Confederation of North and Central American and Caribbean Association Football became -- wait for it -- The Football Confederation.

    I suppose you have to laugh. Leaving aside the obvious rejoinders ("Aren't there, like, other football confederations?" "You mean as opposed to the baseball confederation?" "Pretty clever -- so what name did you guys really pick?"), the name is absurd because it's so obviously an act of desperation. You don't call yourself The Football Confederation unless you're A) incredibly arrogant, or B) incredibly insecure. If it's the former, people will just resent you; if it's the latter (and of course that's the case here), no name is better calculated to let your insecurity show. The US military is occasionally prey to this sort of silliness; some years ago one of their major missions was dubbed Operation Just Cause. You shout your point as loudly as you can because you don't believe it yourself. Nothing's more obvious than trying too hard.

    The punch line, naturally, is that the name didn't stick. How could it? No other confederation would ever use it, and FIFA certainly isn't going to call one of its satellites THE Football Confederation. The FIFA website has links to "CONCACAF," and at December's draw for the World Cup finals, with the world watching, Michael Zen-Ruffinen himself uttered the forbidden acronym. (He also called the USA a "Central American" team, but that's another column.) But even CONCACAF has given up the fight. You can still reach their website at; if you go there you'll see a big heading "FOOTBALL CONFEDERATION" (what happened to the "The"?), and underneath, in smaller letters, the full CONCACAF title. On the right side there's a scrolling text that starts with "Welcome to CONCACAF!" Vestiges of the great change are in the competition titles: FC Champions Cup, FC Giants Cup, etc. That's sillier than ever, because "FC," as even the suits should know, is a worldwide abbreviation for Football Club.

    I bring this all up because this month CONCACAF stages its premier event. It's called the Gold Cup (FC Gold Cup, if you insist), and is in effect the regional cup of nations, like the Copa America or the European Championship. The teams will start out in 4 groups of 3:

Group A: Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador
Group B: USA, South Korea, Cuba
Group C: Costa Rica, Trinidad & Tobago, Martinique
Group D: Canada, Ecuador, Haiti

    The top two teams from each group will advance to the quarterfinals, and…Oh, you noticed. You mean you haven't checked your atlas lately? Ecuador now sits neatly between Colorado and Wyoming (lots of mountains there), and South Korea, turned round a bit, is nestled in the Gulf of Mexico next to Veracruz. It's the next stage in globalization.

    That's only partly a joke. Ecuador and South Korea were invited not in the pursuit of brotherhood, but (no surprise) money. The Gold Cup is almost always held in the USA, and CONCACAF brings in outside teams to attract the huge immigrant audiences in Miami and Los Angeles. This has been going on for a while now: in 1993 the "guest" was Morocco, in 1996 and 1998 Brazil (!), and in 2000, in a veritable orgy of international goodwill, Peru, Colombia, and South Korea.

    The inclusion of outsiders is intended to enhance the competition, but of course it has the opposite effect. How can you have a legitimate regional championship if some of the teams aren't from the region? In 1996, Brazil eliminated the USA; in 1998, Brazil eliminated El Salvador; in 2000, Colombia eliminated the USA and Peru eliminated Honduras. The outsiders undercut the identity of the confederation -- the exact opposite of what the tournament is supposed to achieve. It's the name change all over again: by inviting guests to the tournament, CONCACAF says up front how little they believe in themselves.

    Interestingly enough, the Copa America, CONMEBOL's cup of nations, has been inviting guests for several years as well. The USA has participated once, and Mexico several times; last year, when the tournament in Colombia threatened to collapse, Costa Rica and Honduras helped prop it up. But the Copa's invitations stem from confidence, not insecurity. CONMEBOL, a well-established power, invites only the best CONCACAF teams (including the Gold Cup champion), transforming the tournament into a kind of Pan-American championship. The Gold Cup picks anyone who can fill the seats.

    What does this have to do with the World Cup? Note that the two guests this year are both World Cup teams; the point is that they'll want to use the Gold Cup as part of their preparation. Ecuador has assembled its full squad, and South Korea is bringing a strong team as well. But the idea has its limitations. First of all, we're still more than four months from the finals, an eternity in international football. National teams play so rarely that it usually takes several weeks of training and play to get their rhythm. That's why teams play friendlies in the few weeks before the World Cup, and why the best teams sometimes don't catch fire until the tournament is well under way. In addition, the Gold Cup doesn't necessarily offer the kind of opposition you need. Look at the draw: Ecuador will start with Canada and Haiti, not exactly the elite of the soccer world.

    Still, South Korea and Ecuador agreed to come, so presumably they think it'll help. Except the CONCACAF teams themselves don't think so. Mexico is bringing not a second- but a third-string squad, many of whom are looking for their first cap. The USA has brought in only two foreign-based players, neither of which figures to play a major role at Korea/Japan. Both teams have fairly settled lineups, and with the World Cup several months away, they'd rather use the tournament to look at fringe players. In the USA's case, there are important practical considerations as well. Americans abroad often have to battle for a place in their club teams, so they'll be of more use in June if they can keep their club role now. You prepare for the World Cup by avoiding the Gold Cup. (South Korea has left off two of its European players for the same reason.)

    The one CONCACAF qualifier who's going all out here is Costa Rica. They're bringing everyone (striker Paolo Wanchope will arrive after the group stage), and are fully committed to winning the tournament. But that's just it. In all the quotes from Costa Rican coaches and players, no one mentions the Gold Cup as a preparation for the World Cup. They talk about gaining respect, winning the championship for the first time, qualifying for the expanded Copa America. In fact, the trainer has stated publicly that the competition puts their World Cup campaign in jeopardy. Too many games, he says, will leave the players tired by the time they go to Korea. But they're out for the Gold anyway.

    And I say bully for Costa Rica. The purpose of a regional championship is to crown a regional champion. Link it in any way to the World Cup, and it loses much of its meaning. The World Cup is the 500-pound gorilla of international soccer, and is meant to be so. It swallows everything that comes near. The Costa Ricans should have the right to try for the Gold Cup, and not risk their World Cup hopes. They shouldn't have to compete with teams outside the region who are using the tournament as a World Cup prep. And if they win, they shouldn't have their victory cheapened because their rivals punted the tournament in favor of the much bigger tournament just down the road.

    The Europeans figured this out long ago. They hold their regional championship every four years, between World Cups. So does Asia. CONCACAF used to schedule the Gold Cup in odd-numbered years, like the Copa America, and if you're going to play every two years, the odd numbers are better. You get a tournament the year after the World Cup, with everyone's undivided attention. You get one the year before the World Cup, which gives teams some training time to rev up for the last year of qualifying. Probably one every four years, like Europe and Asia, is even better. The rarer the tournament, the more important the championship. The bottom line: if you want the Gold Cup to have any integrity at all, you need to keep it as far away from the World Cup as possible.

    Of else you can do it the CONCACAF way: just change the name. How about The Football Cup? The Very Important Cup? The Cup To Which All True Football Nations Aspire? Or my choice: The Best Cup Of Them All, Better Than The World Cup, No Really, We Mean It!



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