The Gold Cup: Past, Present, Future

It’s flying under the radar even by American soccer standards, thanks in part to the extensive coverage of the cash cow “World Football Challenge” going on across the country, but the final stages of the Gold Cup — the CONCACAF confederation’s biennial championship — are upon us. Tonight I’ll be attending the semi-finals of the Gold Cup at Soldier Field, Chicago.

The spotlight was far brighter on the previous Gold Cup finals held just two years ago in this city. Most countries sent their ‘A’ squads: the U.S. rightly prioritised their own confederation’s contest over the Copa America they would participate in shortly after, probably because a spot in the Confederations Cup was the carrot for the winning team. Holding the semi-finals and final in Chicago at Soldier Field allowed the buzz to envelope the soccer-loving community in the city, and the final itself was a classic: a capacity 60,000 crowd at Soldier Field saw the U.S. defeat Mexico on a beautiful sunny day before a crowd clearly partisan for El Tricolor.

Gold Cup Final 2007, Soldier Field, Chicago

Gold Cup Final 2007, Soldier Field, Chicago

That buzz isn’t quite the same this year in Chicago, even though I’m looking forward to tonight. What’s different?

For a start, it seems awfully soon for the same semi-finals of the same international tournament to played in the same city (though the final will this year be held in New Jersey).  There’s a strong argument to be made that the Gold Cup ought to be held only every four years instead of biennially. This would ensure a great prize — qualification to represent CONCACAF at the Confederations Cup (now held only every four years) — is available every time (the US certainly took advantage of their opportunity in South Africa).

Such a change would of course give the tournament greater scarcity value. And it would also make it easier for MLS to do what it really should do during these important national team tournaments — stop domestic club play (even if only for the weekend of the final) to focus attention on the Gold Cup.

Indeed, in the 1970s and 1980s, the CONCACAF championship was held only every four years — and the prize was even greater than qualification for the Confederations Cup. At stake was CONCACAF’s sole berth in the World Cup finals. No fewer than six different countries won the tournament out of the ten tournaments held between 1963 and 1989 in eight different countries.

Mexico and U.S. fans at the 2007 Gold Cup Final in Chicago

Mexico and U.S. fans at the 2007 Gold Cup Final in Chicago

But in 1991 CONCACAF decided their regional tournament needed a rebranding, renaming it the Gold Cup and holding it roughly every two years since, with World Cup qualification no longer the prize. It has been hosted in the US every time (Mexico were co-hosts in 1993 and 2003), presumably because of the facilities available and the crowds that can be attracted across the country with such considerable immigrant populations from so many CONCACAF nations. Tonight’s semi-finals will surely feature more fans of Costa Rica, Mexico and Honduras than the Stars and Stripes.

The expansion of the tournament to twelve teams means it’s probable only Mexico could also even conceivably host the tournament logistically now, and the financial incentive for packed stadiums every two years in the US is likely to ensure the same set-up continues for some time, at least as long as CONCACAF is run by Jack Warner.

Something has probably been lost from the days when Haiti could host the CONCACAF championship in 1973 and surprise the world by winning it and heading to West Germany for the World Cup finals the next year. The hegemony of the US and Mexico has been broken only once in Gold Cup history, with Canada’s victory the lone non US or Mexican win (both countries have won it four times).

The Gold Cup has been a financial success since its inception, but it probably needs a few more upsets and little more scarcity value to ensure the kind of buzz we saw two years ago in Chicago is replicated every time.

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