The nest of geniuses that is the CONCACAF Executive Committee apparently has looked at the ungodly, two-year, 18-match slog that is South American World Cup qualifying and said, let’s bring that here, but make it bigger.
Please, Sunil, I’ve defended you a lot, I’ve defended your non-oppositional approach to CONCACAF and FIFA. I’ve defended you against American soccer’s worst mouth breathers. But please, please, get together with the Mexicans and at least try to stop this from happening.
What appears to be on the agenda is a 22-match final round replacing the previous 16-game semi/final format. The final remaining 12 teams, after some kind of prelim round, would then play each other twice over an enormous two-year span. Let’s take a look a the 12 teams that made it to the third round of qualifying this time around.
- Costa Rica
- El Salvador
This means, depending on your ichthyological definitions, at least 6-8 matches against minnows who really have no chance whatsoever qualifying for the World Cup. This includes countries like Cuba, Haiti, Suriname, and Canada (Hi Duane!). Only one of the six additional teams that would be allowed into this gluttonous final round could even be described as “bubble” teams that at least made it close in the third round (Jamaica). The rest are downright mediocre. Using the last cycle’s results as a guide again, they’re teams that averaged -7.5 goal difference with only one of them even finishing their 3rd round with an even zero GD (Jamaica, again).
This then emerges as fixture congestion of the worst sort. Here’s why this matters:
- Player fatigue: With more and more of the US’ top players playing in Europe’s only league with a restorative winter break, US fans will face an England-style rash of injuries when our Premier League-based players hit the wall after all the additional travel and matches between England and CONCACAF. Also, with our players increasingly playing on teams further involved in deeper European runs, this just further adds strain through even more matches and more travel.
- Dilution of product: If I’m US Soccer, I’m dreading the prospect of having to sell tickets to World Cup qualifiers against the likes of Suriname and Canada. On one hand, USSF wants to play these matches in big venues to increase revenue and increase the perception that qualifiers are “big deals,” on the other hand, you’re not going to get 20,000 fans for USA-Suriname at typical WCQ prices anywhere in the country. What makes the hex so much fun is that there isn’t all that much of it. It’s tense. It’s difficult. It’s a difficult combination between the proverbial marathon and sprint. This will remove much of the urgency out of many matches, especially road matches.
- The politics of it: If there is any issue where the big boys of CONCACAF need to step up and stomp down, it’s this one. Mexico and the USA do not need their players called in for more travel and more near-meaningless matches. This would be a great chance for Gulati to show he actually has some heft within CONCACAF by making this plan go away. I understand the need to keep CONCACAF/FIFA feathers unruffled during a World Cup bid, but this is about the players here. As an aside, if I hear that the Canadian Federation is pushing for this, then I’m leading a field trip down to the embassy here in DC where we can all stomp on Sydney Crosby effigies, and burn Barenaked Ladies Albums.
But let’s not mince words as to why this is taking place. This is a move to placate members of the Caribbean Football Union (CFU), all of whom are fully paid members of Jack Warner’s kleptocracy within CONCACAF. Only once since 1998 has more than one CFU team even made to the final round (2002). So this is about giving the CFU minnows more TV money and more gate money through near-guaranteed matches with the US and Mexico. It doesn’t take a keen political eye to read between the lines of this quote by Jamaican official Horace Burrell.
See, it’s not even really about CFU teams actually qualifying for World Cups. It’s about them making as much money as possible.
As I said earlier, this would be a great opportunity to see if Gulati is capable of doing anything more than simply pledging fealty to his bosses in the increasingly less likely* hopes of another US-hosted World Cup.
* I’ll get to this in another post, but I think Gulati is about to get out-maneuvered and dramatically outspent by the Qataris.