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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Death of a Tournament

    It happens every two years: Gold Cup fever. The streets of Los Angeles and Miami are festooned with bright yellow and red banners bearing the CONCACAF logo; t-shirts, caps, and replica kits are on sale everywhere; at local shopping malls you can see "Goldie," the adorable nugget-shaped mascot, kicking around a ball with boys and girls of all ages. Television commercials almost every hour remind you that the games begin July 6, and tickets are going fast. Fans arrive at midnight at the box offices, camping out, waiting for...oh, who am I kidding? No one cares.

    It didn't have to be this way. The Gold Cup began in 1991, when CONCACAF decided to resurrect its long-moribund regional tournament. It had been an amazing 20 years since the last official confederation championship. Using the UNCAF and Caribbean Cups as qualifiers, the tournament divided 8 teams into two groups of 4, with semifinals and a Final. The competition was held in Los Angeles, where a large and varied immigrant population might come out to support their teams.

    The tournament was a modest but definite success. The crowds were solid, the quality of play was good, and churros were the snack of choice at the LA Memorial Coliseum. Scoring was high, so high that fans were calling it the "Goal Cup." I lived in Los Angeles back then, so I attended a number of games. My fondest memory is of the USA-Trinidad & Tobago match, which featured wonderful steel band music from the T&T fans, a late comeback for a USA victory, and not one but two bicycle kick goals (!!), from Leonson Lewis and Marcelo Balboa.

    The USA won the tournament, upsetting Mexico in the semis and outlasting Honduras on penalty kicks in the Final. It was the best possible result--and not just because I'm a USA supporter. The surprise meant there might someday be a team that could challenge Mexico for supremacy; more important, it assured that Mexico would take the tournament seriously. In 1993 they split the groups between the USA and Mexico; the two hosts duly finished on top, won their semifinal matches, and met in the Azteca for the Final. A packed stadium--and no stadium can pack like the Azteca--saw Mexico crush the USA 4:0, making their point quite clearly.

    The future of the tournament seemed bright: with soccer in the USA growing, a natural rivalry now had a perfect venue, and the numbers showed that, if properly handled, you could get people to turn out to see CONCACAF football. And the cup got a welcome boost from the 1995 Copa America, where both Mexico and the USA participated, and the USA upset Mexico again. With the next edition scheduled for California in January 1996, and no other tournaments in the way, it looked as if we might really have something worth watching.

    But as the 18th century German playwright Friedrich Schiller wrote, "Against stupidity the gods themselves struggle in vain." The confederation added an extra team, making for an unwieldy 9-team structure. There were now 3 groups of 3, with the best second-place team making the semifinal. Hardly fair, since how well a second-place team does is greatly dependent on the strength of its group. Guatemala, fortunate enough to have St. Vincent & the Grenadines below them, advanced to the semis, even though Canada was probably a stronger team that year.

    But far worse was the identity of that extra team, the 9th team. Ready? It was Brazil. Now take a few moments to think about that…right, got it in one. The integrity of the competition was destroyed at a stroke. Of course you don't invite someone outside the region to a regional championship. Of course you don't invite Brazil, of all teams, who will totally upset the balance of the competition. But never mind. The men in the leather armchairs saw dollar signs flashing, and made the call to Rio.

    And of course the result was disaster. Brazil didn't even bother to send the second string, because they didn't need to. They sent a youth team, which crushed Canada and Honduras in the group stage, and knocked out the USA in the semifinal. Mexico topped them 2:0 in the Final, with goals from Luis Garcia and Cuauhtémoc Blanco, and 88,000 people showed up--but the one thing they didn't see was a CONCACAF championship. The great potential of the competition, the chance for other teams to test themselves against Mexico, the chance to claim a legitimate regional trophy, was squandered.

    And it got worse from there. In 1998 they bumped it up to 10 teams, making for a silly two groups of 3 (winners advancing) and one of 4 (top two teams advancing). And of course one of those 10 teams was Brazil. But with the tournament scheduled for February, during the European season, the Seleçao brought a B team, with only two players who would figure significantly in the upcoming World Cup (and neither of them were named Ronaldo, Bebeto, Roberto Carlos, or Cafú). They were placed in the group of 4, so they sleepwalked through the group stage, knowing all they had to do was finish second. In the semis they met the USA again, where before only 12000 fans, a legendary performance by Kasey Keller (Romario called it the best game he'd ever seen a keeper play) drove the USA to a 1:0 victory. So we lucked into the dream Final again, USA-Mexico, where a stupendous crowd of over 90,000 in the Rose Bowl saw the Tri win out 1:0. Would the Yanks have won if they hadn't given their all against Brazil? We'll never know. Once again, though, we saw the potential. Jamaica had been a wonderful surprise, drawing with Brazil and taking Mexico to extra time in the semifinal. The Big Game had drawn the Big Crowd. Couldn't we get this right just one time?

    But by now the idiots had the bit between their teeth. In 2000 they managed not to invite Brazil, but as if to compensate for quality by quantity, they called in Peru, Colombia, and South Korea. Now there were 12 teams in 4 groups of 3, with the top two teams in each group advancing to a quarterfinal. Meaningless mini-groups, a quarter of the field from outside the region. Mexico sent a decent team, but was openly contemptuous of the competition. Who could care? Canada, to be precise, who advanced from the group stage on a coin flip and went on to win the tournament. They beat Mexico on the way, and won the cup fair and square--but one of the semifinals was Peru against Colombia, and though I was happy for Canada, you'll have to pardon me as a CONCACAF fan for not being overly enthusiastic.

    In fact, the Gold Cup was dying, slowly and dreadfully. In 2002 we had Ecuador and South Korea in the mix, Mexico sent a C team, and the Final, the USA 2:0 over Costa Rica in Pasadena, drew a mere 14000. The gross mismanagement was plain. At this point the tournament should have been in its glory--with the USA at Mexico's level, a true regional championship could have produced some classic games. The other teams could have primed themselves for famous upsets. We could have had something to look forward to, like the rest of the world.

    There was one more chance to get it right. In 2003, Mexico, stung by their loss to the USA in the 2002 World Cup, announced they would take the competition seriously. For the first time in 10 years, the group stage games would be split between the USA and Mexico. A true championship loomed--a potential winner-take-all bragging-rights game to be remembered by both winners and losers for many years to come. But stupidity of course won out. The confederation invited two guests: Colombia and (you guessed it) Brazil. Brazil again sent the U-23s, again beat the USA in the semifinals, and although a very happy Azteca crowd saw their boys win the Final 1:0, the Gold Cup was dead.

    And in 2005 the corpse has been laid out for all to see. We're back in the USA, still with 12 teams, with the opening round now 3 groups of 4. That means more group stage games, which would be fine if there were anything to compete for. But the tournament has been scheduled at the worst possible time--right in the middle of the WC qualifying season, and right after the Confederations Cup. Mexico, quite rightly preferring the Confederations Cup, is again sending a C team. Colombia and South Africa, our two guests, are sending B teams at best--in fact, South Africa can't get local clubs, much less European clubs, to release their players. Even Canada doesn't seem interested this time; they're going mostly with youth. The Hexagonal teams are sending mixed squads, trying out new players and combinations to get ready for the stretch drive. At last report, only 2 of the region's top 10 strikers (Ricardo Fuller of Jamaica and Lester Moré of Cuba) will be there. No Borgetti, Blanco, Wanchope, Gómez, Ruiz, Johnson, Suazo, or Yorke. Panama is bringing Julio César Dély Valdés out of retirement, for crying out loud.

    Of course, as a CONCACAF fan, I'll watch the games. Every single one. I want to see more of Guillermo Ochoa, the spectacular young Mexican keeper. I want to see how Alexandre Guimaraes modifies his tactics--he's said a 3-man back line won't work for Costa Rica this year. It's always great to see Lester Moré, the most obscure of CONCACAF stars. Are the local players for Jamaica as good as they say? How will Leo Beenhakker adjust a revived T&T? Oh yes, I'll watch all the games. I'll file reports, too, here at Planet World Cup, with a detailed examination of the teams and the competition. The one thing I won't care about is who wins.

    Is there any way to resuscitate the Gold Cup? Yes. Remember that any tournament, even the World Cup itself, is only as important as the participants think it is. So make it important. Go back to the basics: eight teams, no guests allowed. If anyone from Brazil calls, hang up. The winner is the CONCACAF champion, period. Follow the European and Asian example: make the tournament once every four years, so that it really means something. If Mexico or the USA fail to win it, they can have four long years to rue their failure, and if Costa Rica or Honduras or Canada or Jamaica or T&T or somebody else wins it, they can have four long years to boast. Schedule the tournament during the summer after the World Cup; that means no conflicts, and the champs can take part in the following year's Copa America. Make the Gold Cup the rousing kickoff of the four-year international cycle. Move the tournament around the region: you don't need more than two or three good stadiums. Give everyone an equal stake. (Oh, and leave out the nugget-shaped mascot. That was a total fabrication, but it even made me shudder.)

    I'm not saying the tournament would thrive all at once--even the World Cup took a while to catch on. But you have to start somewhere. Having watched the life and death of the Gold Cup, I honestly believe there's a chance for a legitimate regional competition. So maybe it won't be the European Championship. It can still be something to be proud of.

    A few paragraphs ago I said I don't care who wins the 2005 Gold Cup. But thinking about it, I've changed my mind. I want South Africa to win. They're in trouble in the World Cup qualifiers, and badly need a boost. And I hope they play Colombia in the Final. Yes, I know that's traitorous. As a CONCACAF fan I always--always--support my teams against outsiders. But the men who run the Gold Cup are powerful men, arrogant men, and there's only one way to make those kind of men take notice. Humiliate them. Make them jokes and laughingstocks. Show the world how small they are. Will they see the light? Maybe not. Maybe there's too much money involved. Maybe down deep they really don't care. But there's something at stake for all of us here, in this most benighted of confederations. So once, just this once, I'll cheer for the other side. Besides, in the 2003 qualifiers for the FIFA World Youth Championship, South Africa had a goalscorer by the name of Lazarus Motsaopong. And what we need now is to rise from the dead.



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