The commercial and marketing success of UEFA’s Champions League since its launch in 1992, with its final now the most watched annual sporting event globally surpassing the Super Bowl, has spawned imitators by FIFA confederations around the world.
We have the AFC Champions League in Asia, launched in 2002; we have the CAF Champions League in Africa, launched in 1997; we have the OFC Champions League in Oceania, launched in 2007; and we have the CONCACAF Champions League in North and Central America (and the Caribbean), branded as such in 2008.
The only confederation that hasn’t renamed its premier international club tournament as a “Champions League” is South America’s CONMEBOL, which of course has retained the Copa Libertadores, founded in 1960. It hasn’t done so for the simple reason that the tournament is already a success; albeit not as lucrative as Europe’s equivalent. The other confederations have all tried to copy the success of allowing in more teams to the champions’ tournament and giving it a snazzy new name.
The most recent effort, CONCACAF’s, has a problem. All four teams in the semi-finals this year are from Mexico (UNAM Pumas, Pachuca, Cruz Azul and Toluca). Meantime, in UEFA’s Champions League, six different nations are represented in the final eight. Now, UEFA’s showpiece has not always been a brilliant exhibition of the continent’s diversity; England has had four representatives at this stage in each of the previous two years. The institution of the Champions League in Europe itself has been a blow to smaller nations, a fact recognised by UEFA with their reorganisation of the qualification process to benefit countries outside England, Germany, Spain and Italy.
But in the CONCACAF Champions League last year as well, Mexico provided three of the four semi-finalists as well and both finalists. Even the final iteration of the CONCACAF Champions Cup in 2008 before it was renamed the Champions League saw both Mexican qualifiers reach the final. This should have been a sign that CONCACAF was not ready for a “Champions League” that allowed in more qualifiers from the dominant country. It has simply entrenched Mexican dominance, especially with MLS still unable or unwilling to prioritise the tournament.
The CONCACAF Champions League may be making more money now; Mexican television will be enjoying their national hegemony. But for countries in the rest of the region, the chances of their champions progressing in the tournament have become slimmer, and that’s a blow to the development of club football around the confederation.
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