Why CONCACAF is killing the best rivalry in North America
In CONCACAF's new format, U.S., Mexico wouldn't meet for Cup qualifiers
Rivalry is epic, with things like Brian McBride's black eye, Forehead of God goal
U.S. supports format, hoping CONCACAF backs a U.S. World Cup bid
They're killing the most important rivalry in American soccer.
That's my unavoidable conclusion after speaking to Chuck Blazer, the general secretary of CONCACAF, who confirmed that he expects FIFA to approve a new regional qualifying format for World Cup 2014.
Under the new format, which has already been approved by CONCACAF, the U.S. and archrival Mexico -- the two soccer giants in this part of the world -- would almost certainly not meet during any of the qualifying games for Brazil 2014. Not even once.
Sadly, I'm not making this up.
Over the past 15 years, U.S.-Mexico has turned into the greatest international sports rivalry in North America, a spectacle that has transcended soccer and helped grow the U.S. national team's popularity among mainstream American sports fans. The two U.S.-Mexico World Cup qualifiers that take place every four years -- one in the U.S., usually Columbus, Ohio, the other in Mexico City -- have filled stadiums with rabid supporters from both countries and turned into must-see TV.
Last year the most popular sports columnist in America, ESPN.com's Bill Simmons, traveled to the U.S.-Mexico game at Estadio Azteca and pronounced that he'd never attended a sporting event where the crowd's collective loathing was as palpable -- not even Boston Celtics playoff games in the 1980s against Bill Laimbeer and the Detroit Pistons. "My trip to Mexico quickly morphed into one of those 'I'm going to remember everything that happened 40 years from now,' " he wrote.
I've had the same experience on both sides of the border. The U.S.-Mexico World Cup qualifiers in Columbus have been just as memorable: three U.S. victories, two of them in such wintry conditions that the Mexican media dubbed them La Guerra Fría (The Cold War).
Whether in Mexico or the U.S., so many images stand out over the years: Brian McBride's black eye, Oguchi Onyewu's staredown of Jared Borgetti, Charlie Davies doing "the Carlton" at the Azteca corner flag, Rafa Márquez's red card, Carlos Hermosillo's Forehead of God goal, the Yanks' 10-man tie in Mexico and strikes by Michael Bradley, Josh Wolff and DaMarcus Beasley, among others.
All the while, fans from both sides went to the limits in expressing their national pride -- and, of course, their sporting hatred for their archrivals. One of the coolest U.S. soccer moments of the past decade was clinching a World Cup berth in 2005 by beating Mexico in Columbus. Afterward, players donned American flags and Uncle Sam top hats to celebrate with the fans as fireworks burst in the sky overhead. And you can't imagine what the scene was like in the Azteca last year after Mexico came from behind to win 2-1 and avoid its first loss to the U.S. on home soil. Mexican fans wearing printed "F--- YOU DONOVAN" T-shirts tossed debris on the U.S. team and taunted every American so gleefully that the U.S. fan section needed an armed police escort to get out of the stadium. (One Mexican fan near the press area shot me an obscene gesture from 10 inches away and dumped his beer on my laptop.)
First-rate gamesmanship has always been part of the rivalry. Mexico hosts its games at the Azteca, where the altitude, smog and noise give El Tri a huge home-field advantage. Last year they scheduled kickoff for noon on a weekday, the better to take advantage of the summertime heat. Meanwhile, the U.S. hosts Mexico in Columbus, a winter icebox that turns the Mexican players into mitten-wearing fraidy cats fearful of a little chill.
What's more, as the U.S. has improved and started winning its share of games against Mexico over the years, the television ratings have climbed to new heights. An average audience of 7.1 million viewers in the U.S. watched the U.S.-Mexico World Cup qualifier in February 2009, 17 percent on English-language ESPN2 and 83 percent on Spanish-language Univisión. (ESPN2's audience of 1.2 million was the highest the channel had recorded for a World Cup qualifier.) Advertisers and TV networks love the U.S.-Mexico rivalry. It's a win-win for fans and moneymen in both countries.
The huge amounts of pressure associated with the rivalry -- on and off the field -- were especially good for the U.S. players, who need as many challenges as possible in a qualifying region where, let's face it, the rest of the teams aren't nearly as good as the Big Two. One of the biggest problems facing the U.S. is that it doesn't have enough high-stakes competitive games between World Cups. The biennial CONCACAF Gold Cup isn't exactly the European Championship or the Copa América. And now the Americans are going to play fewer important games, not more?
So why on earth would CONCACAF eliminate the two most attention-grabbing World Cup qualifying games in its region? It comes down, as you might expect, to politics. FIFA has a one-country, one-vote policy when it comes to elections (there happens to be one next year for FIFA president), and the 35-member CONCACAF includes 23 Caribbean island nations whose ability to band together as a voting bloc (under CONCACAF president Jack Warner of Trinidad & Tobago) gives them power in the FIFA boardroom that far exceeds their impact on the soccer field.
The new CONCACAF World Cup qualifying format may be bad for the U.S.-Mexico rivalry, but it's great for those Caribbean island nations. In the past, as Blazer pointed out to me, most of the Caribbean countries got only two World Cup qualifying games before they were eliminated. Under the new format, 32 of the 35 CONCACAF countries will get at least six World Cup qualifiers. That's better for player development in those countries, and it raises the chances for Caribbean teams to pull off surprises (which are easier in six-game than in 10-game tournaments). It also increases the money that federations can bring in with more games on the docket.