The 46th edition of the Copa América, the longest-running international tournament in football, gets underway on 14 June in São Paulo’sMorumbi. Hosts Brazil will be taking on perennial South American underdogs Bolivia in that opening clash, seeking to win their first continental title since 2007.
In amongst the heavyweights of South America, eagle-eyed observes may have noted two nations taking part that could by no definition be described as part of either South America, Latin America, or even the Americas as a whole. Qatar and Japan, by coincidence the winner and runner-up in the Asian Cup held earlier this year, will both be in Brazil competing for a shot at another piece of silverware.
In fact, initial plans for the 2019 tournament involved six invited guests – to make a more numerically pleasing field of 16 – but a lack of willing participants soon put paid to that. There had been speculation over invites to Spain and Portugal – the colonisers of South America – but given their involvement this summer was always going to be either the Nations League finals or European qualifiers, that was never a serious proposition.
Schedule clashes with the Gold Cup, the Africa Cup of Nations and those European tournaments meant that Asia was the only place to go for guests that could send their best teams. Six Asian guests was never a realistic possibility, and so the grandiose plans for expansion were shelved. But just why are these guests there at all, how have they faired, and what does guest participation mean for the Copa América?
It is a unique approach among the continental tournaments in world football, but it is far from the first time that the Copa América has featured nations from beyond its boundaries. The reasoning lies in the fact that there are only ten member federations in CONMEBOL, the South American football federation.
Having been played in various formats through the years, it was decided to add two guest nations for the 1993 tournament onwards. The preceding tournament had seen two groups of five, with the top two in each progressing to the semi-finals. By increasing the field, the tournament could introduce an additional knock-out round, with three groups of four leading to the quarter-finals.
The price to pay for this was a loss of integrity, and the risk – as yet unfulfilled – that South America’s champion would come from another continent. The guests are generally only expected to pad out the schedule, bringing along their TV money and viewing figures, then making a swift exit before the real action got going in the knock-out rounds. That script been usually followed, most guests taking their leave early, but on occasion, some have had a full tilt at glory.
The one constant since 1993 has been the presence of Mexico as a guest. They are not only the most obvious fit geographically, but on the football field they have generally been well equipped to take on the giants of South America. This was clear from the start when El Tri fought their way through to the final itself in 1993 only to lose to two Gabriel Batistuta strikes, as Argentina secured what remains their last South American title.
Mexico were runners-up again in 2001 – losing to hosts Colombia on that occasion – and have been semi-finalists on a number of other occasions. In more recent editions, however, a clash between this tournament and the Gold Cup has seen Mexico attempting to compete on two fronts, with two separate squads.
As a CONCACAF member, the Gold Cup had to take priority, and Mexico’s performances in the Copa América duly suffered as a consequence. A clash of priorities again in 2019 means that this will be the first Copa since guests were first invited in 1993 in which Mexico will not be taking part.
Also guesting in 1993 were the United States, taking the opportunity to test themselves in a competitive environment as they continued their preparations for hosting the 1994 World Cup. They didn’t make it out of the group on that occasion, only picking up one point in a 3-3 draw with Venezuela. Both Mexico and the USA were back for more in 1995, and this time both advanced to the quarter-finals where they faced each other.
The United States campaign up to that point had seen them lose to a strong Bolivia side, but wins over Chile and then spectacularly 3-0 over Argentina, saw the United States top their group. For the first time, therefore, a competitive clash between the eternal rivals Mexico and the United States was played out in another federation’s tournament.
A tense, tetchy match ended goalless, with the US ultimately prevailing 4-1 on penalties. The Uruguayan locals clearly weren’t overly enamoured at this CONCACAF incursion into their event – a mere 6,500 spectators bore witness to this quarter-final. The USA were narrowly beaten by Brazil in the semi-finals before exhaustion, both emotionally and physically, took its toll, and a resounding thumping from Colombia in the third-place playoff saw the US finish fourth.
Despite being invited to every subsequent tournament, clashes with the increasingly important MLS schedule meant that the invitation wasn’t accepted again until 2007, and even then it was with deep reservations as Costa Rica seemingly poised to step into the breach until the last moment. A weak US squad was beaten in all three group matches, rendering their appearance literally and figuratively pointless. This exposes the uncomfortable truth about the guest participants in the tournament.
For them, it is frequently little more than a glorified friendly tournament, a chance to test out fringe players or to gain tournament experience aware from the real pressures of World Cup qualification or their own confederation’s tournament. The USA haven’t featured in a regular Copa América since, with only the Centenario edition – an expanded format hosted by the USA – being the exception, where several CONCACAF nations took part. It was the hosts who were the best guests on that occasion, winning their group and advancing to the semi-finals only to go down 4-0 to a rampant Argentina.
A third CONCACAF nation, Costa Rica, made the first of their guest appearances in 1997 to little acclaim, with Jamaica doing likewise in 2015. The horizons were expanded in a different direction in 1999 when Japan were invited, becoming the first non-American team to participate. Again, this was with little impact as they finished last in their group in a tournament that suffered from weakened squads across the board – a fact highlighted by Uruguay sending their youth squad.
Japan had been set to take part on a couple of other occasions only for circumstance to prevent it. They were slated to guest in the 2011 edition, as reigning Asian champions, before the tragic tsunami that hit Japan in March that year led to their withdrawal. They also declined an invitation in 2015, as did China.
The 2001 Copa América had been set to feature Canada alongside Mexico, only for security concerns in the host nation Colombia causing the tournament to be cancelled a couple of weeks ahead of the scheduled kick-off. The Canadians duly abandoned their training camp, sending their players back to their clubs. Five days later the tournament was reinstated, but it was too late for Canada – their one opportunity to take part in the Copa América disappearing before it even begun.
Honduras stepped in at the very last minute and, despite their lack of preparedness, made it all the way to the semis, defeating Brazil in the quarter-finals. This unlikely success stems again from the era of weakened teams taking part across the board, but all of these examples of unlikely guests and frequent invite rejections leave the Copa América appearing weak, desperate and needy. This is despite South American teams boasting a wealth of talent and depth across the board that ought to make the tournament strong and exciting without the need to scour the globe for willing guest participants.
Generally, the Copa América is at the start of a cycle for the South American nations. Coming a year after the World Cup, it marks the first competitive action for its members for at least a year, or potentially as long as 18 months for the less successful South American teams. It is usually followed by the start of the World Cup qualifying marathon and as such sees teams at the early stage of their development, and often far from the finished articles that will be competing for global glory three years down the line.
This has been the cause of a weakening of many squads over the years; the quality in the Copa América suffering as a result. This weakening has only been enhanced by the invited guests, many of whom are either not of sufficient quality to compete, or not at full strength themselves.
Will this be different in 2019? Mexico and the United States were invited, as is the norm, but as CONCACAF members they are duty bound to send their strongest squad to the Gold Cup. Years past have seen shadow squads going to the Copa América when schedules clashes, but that was no longer a tenable option, and both declined their invitations.
Japan and Qatar, on the other hand, are coming off the back of reaching the Asian Cup final, and will be up against South American opposition that on this occasion is not about to immediately embark on World Cup qualifying. Ironically, it is because of Qatar, and the winter World Cup in 2022, that the qualifying process won’t begin until March 2020, so there is a possibility that the Asian guests will be facing severely undercooked South American opposition. Whether that is sufficient to anticipate an Asian shock is highly dubious.
What this all means for the Copa América and its grand history is open to debate. While some of the guests since 1993 have made a meaningful contribution, more often than not they have served little purpose other than to allow the preferred format to proceed. The wider perception of the tournament is damaged as a result, however.
The scheduling issues are being addressed, with the next tournament aligning with the European Championship, meaning there will be another Copa in 2020. That edition, bizarrely hosted in Argentina and Colombia, will see a format change back to just two larger groups – but the guests will still be there.
The planned format will see two groups of six – again including two guests – followed by quarter-finals. It feels like a cheapening of a storied, historical tournament, a jewel in the crown of South American football. Only an end to the era of guest participants, or a merger with CONCACAF – wholescale or solely for a Pan-American Copa – can surely lead the Copa América back to levels of prestige it once enjoyed and surely deserves.
By Aidan Williams @yad_williams