Soccer

Our Own Private CONMEBOL

One of the side benefits of being an international soccer fan is the frequent refresher course in geography. Every so often, we are encouraged to grab a globe or fire up Google Maps, and we find ourselves saying, “Oh, so that’s where Slovenia is,” or, “Wow, that flight from London to Donetsk must be rough.” Some lessons, however, have a hard time sinking into people’s brains, and thus, they have to be taught over and over again.

A few days ago, Sports Illustrated‘s Grant Wahl highlighted the recent shenanigans within CONCACAF, which has led to the confederation having three different presidents in the span of two weeks. It has also led to speculation that the confederation would split, with the USA, Canada, Mexico and the 7 Central American nations cutting ties with CONCACAF’s 25 Caribbean nations — leaving high-class grifter Jack Warner to be “The People’s Champion”of a tiny group of islands that don’t amount to a hill of beans without big continental partners. (See: Oceania Football Confederation.)

It’s a pleasant thought, separating ourselves from the cesspool of corruption that seems to follow Jack Warner and his cronies around the globe. Alas, it’s also re-started the discussion of North and Central America joining forces with South America to create one large confederation. After all, who wouldn’t want to see the USA play Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay in meaningful competitions more often? Think of how it would help improve the quality of our play!

The fact of the matter is that Brazil and Argentina are not very close to North America. These are two separate continents on two separate sides of the world. This makes any talk of the USA joining CONMEBOL something of a non-starter. Take notes, class. It’s time for another basic geography lesson.

One of the reasons for the talk of North and South America joining forces is the basic failure of cartography to demonstrate just how far apart the two continents are. Americans look at maps of the world and think, “Hey, South America’s in the same time zone as us, and we’re not separated by any oceans. It must be closer than Europe.”

The truth is that much of Europe is closer to the USA than the epicenters of football in South America. A visit to TravelMath.com demonstrates this. Flying from Miami, arguably the closest city to the South American continent, to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, requires covering a distance of 4,163 miles. This would take a shade under 8 1/2 hours. Do you know what city is 10 miles closer to Miami in terms of flight distance? Lisbon, Portugal. It takes about the same amount of flight time to get there, too.

Of course, if you’re going to Europe, you’re probably going to leave from New York instead of Miami. New York to Lisbon is a 3,378-mile flight, which can be completed in 6 hours and 45 minutes.

Likewise, Miami to Buenos Aires, Argentina is nearly a 9-hour flight that spans 4,385 miles. This is longer than the distance from New York to London (3,471 miles), from New York to Madrid (3,595 miles), or from New York to Milan (4,028 miles). You don’t hear anyone calling for the USA to join UEFA, though, do you? Of course not. That makes no sense. There’s an ocean between Europe and the Americas.

So let’s create a scenario here where the Copa Libertadores covers both continents. Imagine for a moment a draw in that competition which puts the Seattle Sounders in the same group as Colo-Colo, champions of Chile’s Primera Division. Seattle, Washington and Santiago, Chile are 6,432 miles apart! It’s a shorter distance to Athens, Greece from Seattle (6,180 miles) than to Santiago. Plus, Santiago operates in the same time zone as New York, so those 6,432 miles also span three time zones.

What does it take to get from one city to the other and back again? It takes lots of time and a ton of jet fuel, which isn’t cheap. Traveling those distances in short time frames puts tremendous strain on players’ health and fitness. Show me one player, coach or official at Colo-Colo who wants to make that trip for a mid-week continental competition in between two key domestic league ties. Hell, show me anyone involved with the Sounders, who might find themselves flying 2,408 miles to New York prior to a tie in Santiago. Talk about jet lag! What’s more, those long multi-leg flights create a huge expense for clubs that lack the riches of the Premier League. Flying across one continent is expensive enough. Now you want to cross the equator, too?

What about the national teams, then? Well, if U.S. Soccer really harbors ambitions of getting to the World Cup every four years, why would it ever want to go through South America to get there? For that matter, why would any Central American nations? Do Belize, El Salvador and Nicaragua have the finances to compete with the giants of CONMEBOL? What guarantee do they have that the money that comes from a visit from Brazil or Argentina would pay for all that long-distance travel?

What would World Cup qualification even look like for a combined North-Central-South American confederation, anyway? Few would want a preliminary round with 5 groups of 4 teams competing to get into the round of 10. If the USA draws Brazil, Honduras and Paraguay in its group, its World Cup cycle could easily be over before it even begins. Two nights with Larissa Riquelme won’t make up for that.

Perhaps it would simply be two groups of ten drawn semi-randomly, and the top four from each group win a World Cup bid. The USA would certainly face better quality competition, but there’s no guarantee it would draw money-spinning ties with Brazil or Argentina or even arch-rival Mexico every cycle. Plus, Brazil and Argentina would refuse to be part of a World Cup qualification system in which they don’t play each other. More importantly, those long intercontinental flights won’t get any shorter during the qualifiers, thus putting physical strain on players from both continents and financial strain on national federations.

Oh, by the way, how do you think the U.S. national teams would be greeted in Venezuela and Colombia these days? Has anyone considered that?

If anything, the North and Central American nations would be better off working together to form their own 10-nation confederation modeled after CONMEBOL. This simplifies World Cup qualification — no more preliminary qualifying rounds against Barbados and St. Lucia, no more Hexagonal, just ten national teams playing each other home-and-away, with the top three advancing to the World Cup and the 4th-place team playing the 5th-place team in CONMEBOL for the last spot. It guarantees the USA competitive matches with Mexico – something Jack Warner wanted to eliminate, as you might recall. More importantly, it gets Warner out of our business, which would be a great benefit to everyone in North American football, really. Let him have his tiny island fiefdom and be forced to battle it out with the Oceania champ to get to the World Cup. Watching Trinidad & Tobago lose to New Zealand every four years would be a fitting punishment for the man, really.

In the meantime, let us please put the kibosh on this notion that the USA and its North American neighbors could join CONMEBOL. North and South America are two different continents which are too far apart to make combining their confederations feasible. There might be ways for them to work together — a 20-team Pan-American Championship every four years, for example — but in the end, everyone will be better off with North and South America having their own confederations and their own championships. Maybe the USA and Mexico will remain big fish in a small pond, but that doesn’t seem to be hurting FC Barcelona and Real Madrid these days, does it?

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