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When the Costa Rica team returned from the 1990 World Cup, having unexpectedly got out of their group, they were startled to see bright points of light from the ground as their plane came in to land. The proud residents of the capital San José were reflecting the sun with hand-held mirrors to create a homemade light show for the heroes who had done so much to bring credit to the Central American country.
The points of light may have been spread further afield this team round, as the defeated Costa Rican quarter-finalists returned home from Brazil. For Costa Rica’s exploits in the 2014 World Cup, along with those of Mexico and the USA, have provided the inspiration for a most unlikely mutual appreciation society – with fans of even traditional regional rivals celebrating the collective progress by the CONCACAF teams.
CONCACAF is the governing body for soccer in North and Central America and the Caribbean, yet had you been listening to some of the chants in the stadiums where its teams were playing in Brazil, you could have been forgiven for thinking it was a nation state of its own, as fans took to chanting “Con-ca-caf! Con-ca-caf!” at the sight of yet another of the federation’s teams punching above its weight.
There were plenty of such examples: the USA’s escape from the “Group of Death”; the shot-stopping heroics of Mexico’s acrobatic keeper Memo Ochoa against Brazil (or for that matter USA’s Tim Howard, and Costa Rica’s Keylor Navas); Costa Rica’s stunning of Uruguay, then Italy and, almost, the Netherlands, who in turn had been minutes from elimination at the hands of Mexico. Of the quartet of CONCACAF teams at the World Cup, only Honduras failed to make it out of the group stages.
But what prompted this outburst of fraternal spirit, let alone its collective banner under CONCACAF? If anything, since its founding in 1961, the confederation has tended to be invoked in a much less positive light, notably through the corruption scandals that dethroned its autocratic president Jack Warner in 2011, or that later saw the general secretary who denounced him, the USA’s Chuck Blazer, accused of receiving over $15m in commissions.
And for long-suffering fans of national or club teams in regional competition under the confederation’s control, the phrase, “Concacaf-ed” has long been muttered at inexplicable refereeing decisions, bizarre playing conditions, or just amateurish indignities endured on or off the field.
Those indignities can be numerous and, given the competitive structure of the confederation, can feel personal.
Consider the recent experiences of the USA and Costa Rica. In CONCACAF World Cup qualifying after a preliminary round, all the top teams are used to playing against each other in a six-team final group to determine the three automatic places and one playoff qualifier for the World Cup. This group, or “the Hex” as it is quasi-affectionately known, creates its own history of petty rivalries, player grudges and revenge narratives.
The USA and Costa Rica were no exception in this round of qualifying. When Costa Rica were scheduled to play in the States, the USA chose to host their March 2013 game in Colorado. Amid a blizzard.
At the start of play the lines were just about visible but as the snow fell conditions rapidly deteriorated. The USA took the lead on a Clint Dempsey goal, and as the conditions became farcical they held on. By the end of the game the halfway line, repeatedly shoveled clear by ground staff, resembled a barely visible, drunken approximation of itself and the ball was repeatedly holding up in piles of snow.
When an apoplectic Costa Rica delegation eventually departed that night, they left the US Soccer Federation’s framed souvenir photo of the game in pieces on the floor. And when their protests to CONCACAF and FIFA fell on deaf ears, they bided their time.
For the return game in September the USA’s difficulties started the minute they got off the plane. The team was sent through the regular customs and immigration lines where a crowd shouted abuse and then threw eggs at their team bus. They were forced to train at a dairy farm, after three facilities turned them down, and the practice balls from the Costa Rica federation never materialized. Taxi drivers threatened a slowdown on the US route to the game, and US coach Jürgen Klinsmann had his interview interrupted by air horns, despite pleading that “I didn’t call God to give us some snow.” Costa Rica duly won 3-1 over a bedraggled US side.
The incident was hardly atypical of CONCACAF qualifiers, which Klinsmann recently characterized to this writer as “a grind that you’ve got to go through. You go to San Pedro Sula [Honduras], and you have two days to prepare and you get out of the airplane and you can’t breathe because it’s 95º Fahrenheit and 98% humidity, and the sticky air and the smog, it’s … ugh. And the highest crime rate city in the world doesn’t really help you.”
Yet perhaps the CONCACAF teams’ difficult qualifying path is a clue to the apparent World Cup truce. After all, having gone through such “a grind” against teams with which you have strong, historical rivalries, it must be galling to arrive at a World Cup and find European and South American fans arguing that you don’t deserve to be there as much as other teams.
In that context, perhaps, like a somewhat dysfunctional family, insults are only tolerated internally by the CONCACAF nations, whose own claims of competitive validity are strengthened by the parallel successes of their regional rivals at a World Cup, however much those rivals may have strived to stop them (or even inadvertently assisted them) getting there in the first place.
Like most festive moments in soccer, where euphoria is often quickly followed by despair, the fan-side of the CONCACAF carnival in Brazil will probably soon lapse back into regional rivalries and arcane resentments.
Off the field, though, the spirit of collaboration is on steadier ground. Sunil Gulati, the US Soccer Federation chief, is cautious about another US bid for a World Cup after the bruising 2022 experience. However, rumors of a joint Mexico-USA bid for 2026 refuse to go away, as does the possibility of a US bid being quickly revived should Qatar yet fall through as the 2022 host (ironically, were that to happen, the corruption of an earlier CONCACAF regime would be critical in the evidence bringing the Qatar bid down).
The USA and Mexico already collaborate on commercial initiatives via the Soccer United Marketing initiative, and the confederation at large benefits from the big Central American diaspora attending the biennial Gold Cup tournament held in the USA.
But intriguingly, CONCACAF is not the only confederation eyeing up the potentially lucrative US marketplace. After the Jack Warner years, Jeffrey Webb of the Cayman Islands is a less controversial presence as CONCACAF president, and the head of the confederation is also a FIFA vice-president and heads the global governing body’s anti-discrimination committee, but it’s in seeing through a collaboration with CONMEBOL to host the centenary Copa América in the USA next year, that he has made his mark.
While that tournament is a one off, in mingling the best CONCACAF teams with the CONMEBOL teams, it’s also being seen in some circles as the first flirtation for what might ultimately be a merger between the two confederations. With implications for World Cup qualification but also competition levels, the US and Mexico in particular have a lot at stake, were such talk, which was alluded to at the competition launch, ever to get serious.
But wider regional ambitions are hardly on the minds of the fans making their way home from Brazil right now. A huge number of US supporters in particular traveled to these finals (the largest national contingent beyond the hosts) and many attended not just their own team’s games but those of their erstwhile rivals. It’s possible they may not have been disposed to directly cheer for Mexico or Costa Rica, or for that matter, Honduras, but it’s equally possible they may in fact have been celebrating the rest of the world being Concacaf-ed.