According to a report from FOX Sports México, CONCACAF - especially the United States, México, and Canada - is headed back to the Copa América. The tournament, which would be hosted in the USA just like 2016, is scheduled just 18 months from now, in the summer of 2024. It’s a great thing for the North American teams in CONCACAF, but it also makes a lot of sense for the South American powers in CONMEBOL - both in two years time, and in the future.
From a United States perspective, obviously this is welcome news. As the USMNT aims to be even more competitive at the 2026 World Cup, it’s very clear that the team needs more high-level, high-pressure games - and that means more than just playing five or six more finals against México or Costa Rica or Canada. With the advent of the Nations League, CONCACAF competitions are starting to feel a bit dime-a-dozen; next summer, just like in 2021, there will be both a Nations League final and a Gold Cup. There’s only so much that can be learned from a few more games against El Salvador and Grenada, just to pick on two.
The USA, Canada, and México don’t even have to go through the crucible of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying next time around. All three have automatic bids since they’re hosting the tournament, and with the expansion of the tournament to 48 teams, it might be a moot point anyway; henceforth the top six squads from CONCACAF will qualify for the tournament. It seems hard to imagine any of the top three or four in CONCACAF ever missing out on one of those slots.
There’s also a certain amount of motivated reasoning, from the perspective of United States-based fan like me; obviously, it’s hugely exciting for the United States to not only host the World Cup in 2026, but also what is likely the third-biggest men’s tournament in international soccer, in 2024.
From the perspective of the South American confederation, though, I’m not sure this is a bad thing either. Certainly, it feels different than 2016, when CONMEBOL took great pains to insist that the “Copa América Centenario” was merely a “commemorative” tournament, and not a real Copa América. That year felt a bit like an exhibition tournament - Argentina and Brazil being trotted across the United States like a traveling vaudeville show.
This would be an actual edition of the Copa América, not a special commemorative version, and it comes as CONMEBOL seems to be realizing that - as is happening to everyone, everywhere in the soccer world - its lunch is being eaten by the rapacious Europeans.
There once was a time when South America could legitimately view itself as the counterweight to Europe, in the soccer world. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the Copa Libertadores winner from South America played the European Cup winner, in a match that often degenerated into an all-out brawl. From the very beginning, the winners could legitimately claim to be the world champions; Real Madrid, which beat Peñarol in 1960, certainly claimed that title, and victories by Pelé’s Santos teams in 1962 and 1963 were seen as confirmation that Santos was the world’s best team.
Though the Intercontinental Cup lived on until 2004 (for the final quarter-century, as a one-off game played in Japan), and is recognized as the predecessor to today’s FIFA-sponsored Club World Cup (itself of questionable validity), it’s pretty hard to argue that South America is still on Europe’s level.
Oh, Brazil and Argentina are still plenty successful at the World Cup, but other than that, the game has gone entirely European. The five biggest leagues in Europe dwarf the rest of the Earth. The Champions League is the de facto world championship of club football. It’s been two decades since a South American team won the World Cup; three of the past four World Cup finals have been all-UEFA affairs. In 2018, all four semi-finalists at the World Cup were from Europe.
22 of the 26 Argentina players at this year’s World Cup play in those Big Five leagues, with two more in Portugal. So do 22 of the 26 players in the Brazil team. The two powerhouses can boast just four players who play their club soccer in South America - a testament to where the money lies in the soccer world. Go down any roster in the tournament, and you’ll find the same thing; the more hugely talented the team, the more of its players will be in England and Spain and Germany and Italy and France.
What’s a continent to do, other than sit back and watch Europe take over ever more of the soccer world?
If I’m CONMEBOL, this is when I notice that the United States and México have more people, put together, than the entirety of South America. That Canada, with a fifth of the population, has an economy larger than Brazil’s.
Perhaps they’re worried about being swamped by their northern neighbors… but they’ve already been capsized by Europe, and nobody’s breaking into that club. North America, meanwhile, is willing to band together with South America. We’re already seeing the USA and Canada and México team up to an unprecedented degree - not only with the joint bid for the World Cup, but with more and more competition at the club level between the three countries. Why not cooperate with South America too? Why not attempt, on whatever level, to serve as that missing counterweight against European soccer hegemony?
It starts with 2024, but CONMEBOL and CONCACAF should make the change to the Copa América format permanent - and then look for other ways to work together for the good of pan-American soccer.