The opulent scene at the St. Regis Hotel in Bal Harbour on Thursday morning was the first sign that CONCACAF is finally flexing some muscle and being taken seriously by its neighboring Big Boy Confederation — the South American CONMEBOL, home of heavyweights Brazil and Argentina.
Hundreds of sharply dressed dignitaries and soccer media stars showed up for the announcement of the long-rumored 2016 Copa America “Centenario,” which will be hosted in the United States.
The giant ballroom was decorated with fancy lighting, drapes and big video screens. The highly coveted Copa America trophy was on display on the dais, as the presidents of the two confederations revealed their plans for the joint tournament.
Ten South American teams from CONMEBOL will be joined by six CONCACAF teams — United States, Mexico and four others — for a special off-year edition of the oldest continental tournament in the world. The tournament will be held June 3-26, 2016, and is sure to fill stadiums across the United States.
Sun Life Stadium, with its history of near-sellouts for international matches, is likely to be chosen as a venue.
The timing isn’t ideal, as it will overlap with the European Championship, which has a sizable TV viewership in the Americas. It also comes just one year after the regularly scheduled 2015 Copa America and 2015 Gold Cup. World Cup qualifying matches also could fall during that June.
And, maybe most troubling of all, FIFA has yet to put the Copa America “Centenario” on its official calendar. Unless that happens, clubs will not be obligated to release their players.
Then, of course, there’s the issue of the Major League Soccer season, which unlike the rest of the world, runs through the summer.
But organizers seem confident all that will be worked out, and there is no question the event will get huge crowds and TV viewership. Copa America already is a prestigious event and very popular with fans in the rest of the Americas, and the addition of the U.S. team, Mexico and four other teams from the Caribbean, Central and North America will make it even more appealing.
CONCACAF president Jeffrey Webb was correct when he declared that this would truly be a “Copa America” rather than just a Copa of South America.
And CONMEBOL president Eugenio Figueredo talked glowingly of a “more permanent alliance” between the confederations in the future.
What, exactly, did he mean by that?
Will they go a step further and merge the two confederations? Will they consider adding South America’s 10 member nations to the 41 CONCACAF nations and making a 51-member mega-Pan American confederation, similar to Europe’s 54-member UEFA?
While they’re at it, why not scrap the Gold Cup? Although it has gained some prestige in recent years, it lacks the drama and depth of Copa America. Yes, it gives regional minnows such as Belize and Martinique a chance to compete and make some money, but they could still do that if Copa America expands its field and hosts qualifying rounds.
It’s no different from Andorra, Moldova and the Faroe Islands playing in UEFA.
And, how about adding club teams from CONCACAF nations into the Copa Libertadores instead of relegating MLS and Mexican club teams to the CONCACAF Champions League, which, let’s face it, few fans seem to care about.
I could see a day when the Copa America is just like the European Championship, with regional group stages to weed out the weaker teams and then maybe a 16-team knockout stage. The teams from the United States, Mexico, Honduras and Costa Rica surely would benefit from regular competition against the likes of Brazil, Argentina, Colombia and Uruguay.
Travel would be tough because the distance between Canada and Argentina, for example, is three times the distance between any two European countries. But, based on the buzz in that hotel ballroom Thursday, it would be worth it.• Miami World Cup tuneups: South Florida fans don’t have to travel to Brazil this summer to see World Cup teams. Five World Cup teams will play warmup matches at Sun Life Stadium on their way to Brazil.
England plays Ecuador on June 4 and then takes on Honduras on June 7. The Honduran team will set up a training camp in Sunrise in mid-May and train there until the World Cup.
Ghana, which is in the same group as the United States in the World Cup, comes through Miami and plays South Korea at Sun Life Stadium on June 9.
Tickets are on sale through Ticketmaster and the stadium box office.
Further up the state, Japan plays Costa Rica on June 2 in Tampa, and the U.S. team plays Nigeria on June 7 in Jacksonville.• Miami United Opener: Miami United FC, a third-tier pro team, opens its season Sunday against the Tampa Mauraders at 7 p.m. at Milander Park in Hialeah. The team is coached by Ferdinando de Matthaus, who played alongside Pelé with the New York Cosmos, and former Miami Fusion star Diego Serna. The team plays in the National Professional Soccer League.