Without wishing to fixate laborious leverage on personal experience here, again I refer to a period, when, upon observing the myriad of worldly possibilities outside of the isolating bubble of a mobile phone in the event of my loss in Slovenia, I stumbled upon realisation of the cyclical nature of non-European football through the mediums of national sport-only broadcasters SportKlub and Šport TV. Around this time a fortnight ago, I would’ve been tuning in on a daily basis, from five o’clock local time to seven, and again from nine, on many occasions to discover action from the Copa Libertadores, Brazilian Serie A, or pre-season friendlies including a memorable tie between Rapid Vienna and Monaco’s youngsters, in each event with my attention drawn to a message under the channel’s logo in the top-right of the screen of their broadcasting of USA vs Panama, Martinique vs Nicaragua and French Guinea vs Canada at 2AM or so. It took me a day or so, and a full-length repeat of the previous’ morning’s objectively awful Curacao vs Jamaica match, to finally comprehend that these fixtures were not of a series of obscure international friendlies, but represented the diversity of the group stages of CONCACAF’s biennial continental tournament for North America; the Gold Cup. It hadn’t even registered in my reputedly broad sporting spectrum of consideration that such an event had sprung it’s resumption once again – not to say that I had even devoted more than two seconds’ glance to its occurrence in the past, of course – surely a direct confirmation of the appeal and media fixation – or lack thereof – that the tournament commands outside of its decidedly American home audience.
Finding my focus diverting almost immediately – scary, considering there was no alternative technological distraction, other than the thermostat, in my hotel room – from the action in the aforementioned Curacao vs Jamaica fixture I was fortunate enough to discover, I decided this emotional distance was attributable to the overwhelming bombardment of football English supporters experience for nine months of the year, and what I required was a detox. Needless to say this detox, with the only alternative comprehendible delights of Slovenian television being Sky News, or the far superior Russia Today and France 24, never rose to fruition, yet as astute as this analysis may have been, I can’t help but feel the pedestrian movement, repeatedly stray passes and pitiful striking prowess on display in what eventually resulted in a 2-0 victory for Jamaica was at least partly culpable for my lacking enthusiasm, especially considering I had felt an early emotional connection to the Reggae Boyz from my decade-long stint as national manager in Football Manager 2015.
I had the rare opportunity for a European; to view the events of the championships perennially hosted, in all but three of the 16 examples – 1993, 2003 and 2015, the former duo when they shared duties with Mexico, and the latter in coalition with Canada – in the US of A, yet the action failed to capture, let alone entertain, laying testament perhaps to the unfulfilled potential, or unfortunate circumstantial extent of the sport’s capabilities, particularly in the Caribbean and Central American states participating largely without a hope of eventual triumph beyond titans Mexico and the hosts. It is a competition with such remarkable disparities in culture and wealth, we must note, that this dominant duo have run out victorious on all but one occasion, with Canada’s showcase of sheer luck in 2000 – winning a coin toss to escape the group stage over invitees South Korea after returning identical records from two Group D matches, ousting the Mexicans 2-1 on a golden goal-decided quarter-final, seeing off a Dwight Yorke-inspired Trinidad and Tobago 1-0 after then-West Ham ‘keeper Craig Forrest saved a first-half penalty and impressively disposing with an invited Colombian outfit, including Faustino Asprilla, 2-0 to win the title.
Upon return to Sussex little over a week ago now, however, there was a conscious realisation of events on American soil in the global media, I discovered, as the Bleacher Report Football Instagram page, which has previously focused on the unlikely production of Christian Pulisic as a beacon of American ambitions, has skirted around covering the competition; regularly posting on the advancements, predictably, of the two powerhouses. Social media, markedly, is a tool the Gold Cup and those in favour of its expansion to a wider audience will have to utilise to achieve such lofty objectives, as the platform of immediately accessible coverage offers a distinct advantage to consumers, and has, in itself, ushered in the establishment of a fairly vast fan base for football in the region, notably in the example of the MLS, which was thought of before as a retirement home; a domain for the exploitation of rudimentary local skill but astronomic wages for David Beckham and Thierry Henry, among others, yet what now encompasses a knowledgeable and devoted fan base on both sides of the Atlantic.
Perhaps it is the absence of a host of widely recognised American stars – DeAndre Yedlin, Geoff Cameron, Fabian Johnson, Jermaine Jones, DaMarcus Beasley and Julian Green – from the tournament entirely, as well as elder statesmen Tim Howard, Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore and Clint Dempsey prior to the knockout stage (only arriving as reinforcements for those who boss Bruce Arena, in a quizzical feature of the tournament’s rules, was allowed to cut from his roster) that has undermined this summer’s edition particularly. It is not solely the case for the US audience, however, that their favourites are amiss, as aside from the 16 from Arena’s squad of 23 who boast fewer than 20 senior caps, Mexico’s Confederations Cup duty-depleted squad features just six individuals with appearance records in double figures, and forward Erick Torres as the only foreign-based member, Jamaica didn’t select any of their notable English-based contingent, nor tempestuous captain Rodolph Austin, Honduras’ Emilio Izaguirre, Roger Espinoza and Andy Najar ceded position to Honduran-based individuals and Costa Rica’s catalytic force Keylor Navas prioritised pre-season L.A training with Real Madrid. Even Joel Campbell, Christian Gamboa and Bryan Ruiz, the Ticos’ British-based triumvirate, were forced out of national service after the group stage by their pre-season domestic commitments – undermining the entire competition, which, by the inherent necessity of its month-long midsummer schedule, comes into direct conflict with the ever-increasing demands of club football.
Despite, then, being blessed with the fourth largest population of all continents, at 579,024,000, and three mega-nations in the top 20 largest economies in respects of both nominal GDP and PPP (Power Purchasing Parity) – the USA at 1st and 2nd respectively, while Mexico rank 15th and 12th, and Canada 10th and 17th, according to the International Monetary Fund’s 2017 estimates – why can’t North America aid the advancement of CONCACAF and regional football? We all realise, and accept, that football is far from the first choice for athletic children growing up in agricultural Kansas or along the vast coastline of Hudson Bay in Ontario, let alone the entirety of the continent north of where a certain President may have wet dreams of building a ten-foot socio-economic barrier of ignorant apartheid, yet amongst the sheer density of population in the region, while harnessing the contrasting passion and lack of facilities in the Latin American expanses of the association, surely immense potential lies untapped by the authorities of the region. American Football, Baseball, Basketball and Ice Hockey, followed by Golf, Tennis, Athletics and Swimming, rule from East coast to West, from the Great Lakes to the Rockies and from Death Valley to sub-zero Yukon, and as much as those sports are being adopted by University sides established by demographics as globally diverse as they are likely to be in debt here in the United Kingdom, a similar cultural exchange of rugby – union and league –, cricket, to an extent, and football should be expected Stateside, and into Canadian territory. No mean cultural feat, but judging by existing figures alone on football’s participation in America – 13.6 million individuals, of all age groups, representing more than its American namesake and Ice Hockey combined (12 million, at 8.9 and 3.1 million respectively) significant progress has been made since the 1994-hosted World Cup and the nation’s 2002 quarter-final appearance in South Korea and Japan.
Why, though, is the US so fundamentally central to the battle for exposure of the sport in the region? Having hosted the flagship event for their association, considering only two other nations have the capabilities to do so yet don’t wish to upset a system that has prevailed without significant issues for 26 years now, without interruption, some reward has to come from such a constant showcase of continental talent to an audience at first sceptical, yet one that has identified as more affectionate and loyal as time has passed. The US provides the stage for Curacao and French Guiana, both debutants at this year’s edition, alongside fellow minnows Martinique and El Salvador and past qualifiers Guadeloupe, Guatemala, Grenada, Belize and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines to attract a wider audience, inspire future representatives, and more immediately for their players to broker contracts possibly in cities such as Houston, San Jose, Philadelphia and Seattle; each invaluable products of the organisation of such a lucrative event, yet such results that are, arguably, yet to show face on the same proportional scale for the hosts.
For example, since their 2007 tournament debut – in which they had an astounding run to the semi-finals –, islanders Guadeloupe, with the vast majority of their representatives plucked from the French second and third divisions, saw four players - Stéphane Auvray, Miguel Comminges, Eddy Viator and Wolves hero Ronald Zubar – sign for MLS clubs and a number of others make the step up to Ligue 1. Since their one-and-only appearance in 1996, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines have had two MLS representatives, Martinique another two in the repercussions of their 1993 debut and 2002 quarter-final run, Grenada and Belize one each following respective 2009 and 2013 losses of tournament virginity, and Trinidad and Tobago, the first side in terms of lowest population (1,357,000) outside of such a ‘minnow’ bracket, have had an emphatic 36, more than El Salvador, Nicaragua and Guatemala combined, despite only having 4.66% of their combined population and nine tournament appearances to the 22 of the Central American trifecta. Clearly, this is attributable to the respect that individuals who firstly qualify, but latterly impress on such a stage, command, and for heads to turn in the offices of what, to date, are accountable as eleven different MLS sides – past and present – for players from the aforementioned quintet (Trinidad and Tobago aside) of undistinguished states, who, prior to Curacao’s qualification, were the five smallest nations/overseas territories to reach the tournament finals, the testament to the indiscriminate appreciation of such talent is entirely visible.
In this respect, the Gold Cup fulfils its premise without hindrance; supporting its less inherently socio-economically fortunate by offering four finals places to the semi-finalists of the Copa Centroamericana and Caribbean Cup alike, while acknowledging the remaining outfits by organising a play-off between the fifth-placed sides in both tournaments for a final spot alongside automatic qualifiers Mexico, Canada and the USA itself. Mexico aside however, as a result of their proud historic performances on the global stage and revolutionary hosting of the 1986 World Cup, neither of the remaining automatic qualifiers boast football as their most popular spectator sport. I don’t argue it’s a prerequisite to hosting such a tournament *cough*QATAR*cough*, or necessary when on the scale of these two unfathomably vast nations to preordain success when only faced with the remaining 37.11% of the continent’s population at the earliest stage of qualifying as competition, but you would surely imagine that, at least in the US, acting for so long as the trading market of the sport in a region where passion and violence are synonymous in the stands, a greater advantage of the opportunity by this moment in time would have been taken. Christ, there were even occasions as lucrative as when Brazil’s senior side – Romário, Cláudio Taffarel, Edmundo and Gonçalves, notably, who would make the squad that went on to the final months later of the 1998 World Cup, included – and under 23’s – Kaká, Robinho, Júlio Baptista and Maicon, et al. – featured as invitees at the tournament, yet their gratifying presence was not transferred, majorly, at least, into an inspirational upsurge in overall participation; something that can only be made primarily attributable to the brainchild of João Havelange and Ronald Reagan’s pact of favourability, in the American hosting of the 1994 World Cup. As for Canada, they have never made any conceited effort to expand the sport, still relying on ex-patriots and second-generation migrants to even sustain a competitive squad.
Evidently, there is an achingly languid cultural progression manifesting in both the US and amongst their Canadian cousins. Momentum is insufficient to force the sport to the forefront of each nation’s psyche, yet ‘soccer’ is established as one of four of five leading commercial entities of the North American sporting spectrum. Could it be classed as a limbo? Are stadiums, particularly those in use for this tournament, sold out on every Saturday? Well, of the 20 clubs in MLS competition, eight sides have an average 2016 season attendance equivalent to 90% or more of their stadium’s capacity, including the San Jose Earthquakes and Sporting Kansas City, who returned figures of 111 and 106% respectively (?!?). Seven of these sides, however, had capacities below 21,500, and only one club in the entirety of the MLS faced attendances, on average, of more than 32,000; Seattle Sounders, so even with a divisional 77.55% average attendance rating, that only equates roughly to 25,244 people regularly attending the average MLS stadia, of 32,552 seats. Ticket sales may have been on the rise since the league’s inception, or at least for every season from 2004 – 2013 aside -, but for the standard of football to have advanced so rapidly with the influx of designated players and for the amount of fixtures to have more than doubled from the 160 of 1996 and ’97 to 340 today, yet the seasonal attendance figures having not even tripled in that time from 2,785,001 to 7,375,144, while the Premier League, from 1992/93 to the mid 2000’s, produced extortionately progressive sales figures season-on-season (largely thanks to the expansion of Old Trafford and St James’ Park, and the construction of the Etihad, Stadium of Light and Emirates), and fellow European leagues, particularly the Bundesliga, have also enjoyed exponential development. These nations would not be so blasé about the possibilities posed by the hosting of an established continental tournament every two years if it meant increasing ticket sales and encouraging more youngsters in the sport, though clubs in these divisions have scarce capacity for further growth in the respects of attendance, as 95.87% and 86.29% average 2016/17 season attendances in the Premier League and Bundesliga respectively leave little room for drastic improvement.
Besides, when eight of the MLS’ 20 stadia are multi-purpose facilities, and are each larger, at full capacity, than the largest purpose-built football ground belonging to LA Galaxy – which itself is only the 185th largest sports facility in the entire United States – such a degradation of the advancement of football in the region is made more obvious than from any other statistic, in my opinion. The 71,795-capacity NRG Stadium, where Manchester United faced Manchester City in the first overseas Mancunian derby, early Friday morning? The home of the Houston Texans American football team, only converted to football purposes for the sake of such lucrative events. The Rose Bowl, where Barcelona memorably met Manchester United in another pre-season fixture a few years ago, and before it the 1994 World Cup Final was hosted, with 88,500 attendees packed into Pasadena’s world-class cauldron? An athletics track and college football host by day. Just three of the fourteen stadia selected for this summer’s Gold Cup – the smallest three, by quite a margin, I add – are ‘soccer-specific’ facilities, leaving little room for a more damning assessment of the awkward, slightly demeaning circumstance of the sport in the nation; that it cannot realistically host such a competition without reaching for aid from its big brother American football. The smallest of these stadia, Frisco, Texas’ Toyota Stadium, failed even to sell out its meagre 18,000 capacity, registering just 10,048 attendees in an admittedly dire 0-0 stalemate between Canada and Honduras.
If you would permit me to lament the failings of the American system for a further statement, there are certain statistics, published by NBC News’ website in an article about the sport in their nation, that I find fascinating, and oh so revealing. A nation historically founded on migration and immigration alike, with 90%, if not more, of all citizens said to be of European origin alone, the influence of Hispanic and Latin-American culture in southern states, particularly New Mexico, California, Arizona, Florida and Texas, cannot be underappreciated. Disproportionately, then, to the other ethnic demographics of such a diverse nation (82.4% non-Hispanic or Latino), the fact that 56% of America’s football-observant audience in non-World Cup years, and 34% of the MLS’ entire regular viewer base, were revealed to be citizens of Hispanic or Latino origin, by YouGov Research and Nielsen respectively, is extremely telling of the lack of progress outside of the established market of customers, who would have had footballing tendencies inherited possibly as second or third generation migrants from Mexico or Central America, where the sport dominates commercially and culturally. Other than a few nations in the region, Cuba, Nicaragua and Panama included, which rank baseball as their most popular spectator sport, and a handful of Caribbean nations where cricket may be the more accessible pastime, football attracts the largest audiences, the largest funding sums, the superior youth talent, and so the cycle continues. In short, the US relies significantly and excessively on a minority of its overall population to maintain the gradual growth of football, creating a subservient internal structure that, understandably, fails to prosper even when graced with the prize of hosting a tournament continent-wide in its streaming. We could go so far as to argue it is an organisation that is stagnating.
That is where such a dramatic hypothesis meets with the reality of the tournament, continuing tonight at the semi-final stage if you’re reading this on the day it is uploaded. With the US, Mexico, Costa Rica and Jamaica still alive, harbouring ambitions of lifting the trophy in Santa Clara on Wednesday, the favourites remain, guaranteeing drama in the remaining stages. Anything but an eventual US victory will be an unexpected result, in all truth, as they are the only nation with anything close to their first-choice XI available, but anything, we should presume, is still possible, considering Canada’s 2000 tale. As a tournament, it is creating little significant more impact on the global footballing scene than previous editions, but as I mentioned a long time ago now, social media is the key to the exposure of the event, and steadily, the tapping, in equal measure, of furious and elated fingers is attracting greater sections of the globe’s media to the source of such progressive ripples. Slowly, something could be working. It is hardly attributable to the organisers, however; rather the thankless efforts of fans present for their exploitation of the idiosyncratic interconnected modern culture, particularly of Latin American nations, but also visible in the span of news on Twitter from the US to the UK and Europe within minutes, if not seconds, of its occurrence.
Perhaps, considering this underlying factor, the tournament, either at this stage or in future editions, desperately requires a seismic upset or two to send its audience, and doubters, into raptures, à la Canada ’00, Martinique ’07, or Panama ’05. It would be undoubtedly favourable if new threats to Mexico and the US’ dominance emerged, but in the distant socio-economic circumstances, let alone populational disparities, that pervade crime-ravaged Central America and the hurricane, earthquake and flood-threatened Caribbean, little such opposition appears likely; condemning the Gold Cup to a continued spell on the side-lines of global footballing relevance; cowering away from its potential as a result of the stubbornness of organisers, the begrudging relationship of European clubs and their players to its schedule, the inability of the hosts to capitalise on potential fervour and the aforementioned position of any pretenders to the crown. It makes for a powerful recipe of dispiriting failure to engage with audiences and exploit such a considerable population ripe for influence; an entire generation apart from those who witnessed the fantasy of the 1994 World Cup on home turf consciously permitted to slip through the incompetent, corruption-liable hands of CONCACAF bureaucrats.
Honestly, it does appear ludicrous when I demean it so, but I can’t realistically imagine a relevant future for the tournament amongst an ever-increasingly competitive year-round schedule where even a pre-season Manchester derby will overshadow an entire tournament of 12 nations happening only, in the case of the BBVA Compass Stadium, eight miles across the centre of Houston. They may well be expanding to 16 teams by 2019, but when none of the adjoining Caribbean or Central American nations will stand realistic opportunities of escaping the group stage, let alone actually emerging victorious overall, what advantage does that bear? Inclusivity without tangible interaction with what will only be an added audience, at most, of about 5 million, providing everyone in these nations are bothered, is a waste of everyone’s time and money when it comes to international competition. There you have it; the failure of a continental association laid bare, let’s see if they amend their atrocious methods, shall we?
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!