Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The Evolution of the Gold Cup

The Evolution of the Gold Cup

Looking back
CONCACAF was founded in its current form in 1961 after the merging of NAFC and CCCF. This resulted in a single competition being held for the continent every two years from 1963 to 1971. The first official national team competition was in El Salvador in 1963. However here was not enough interest to keep the tournament going.
The World Cup qualifing was considered a tournament every 4 years that doubled for the CONCACAF Championship. The host nations Haiti 1973, Mexico in 1977 and Honduras in 1981 all won the Championship and represented CONCACAF in the perspective World Cups. It was very obvious that there was a huge advantage the home team has when they host such tournaments. Other nations pointed our the descrepancy of having such an advantage.
The next 2 World Cup qualifing tournaments were played in 1985 and 1989. This qualifing tournament was much fairer. There was no fixed venue since these games were home and away series. Canada won the World Cup qualifing tournament (home and away) in 1985 and Costa Rica won in 1989. Soccer however was gaining huge popularity throughout the world and the CONCACAF teams were not keeping pace. Something had to be done.

The vision
CONCACAF teams had talent but they just did not play together enough to keep pace with other national teams. This was not enough to develop quality teams or draw interest from your home supporters. “To put it in perspective, in 1991 (CONCACAF president Jack Warner) said we needed to grow and develop, and our national teams need to get better.” Said executive secretary Chuck Blazer. “At that time, our national teams were only playing World Cup qualifers. Jack thought that we should create an event which would take place every two years, with the effect of keeping our national teams alive. Now you can see how our national teams have progressed against the rest of the world. And in this tournament, there use to be big blowouts but now there were more games decided by a one-goal difference that any before.”[1]

The First Gold Cup (Gold Cup 1991)
The USA won the bid to host the 1994 World Cup and need the experience of hosting and playing in the biggest sporting event in the world. The US was chosen to host the first installment of the Gold Cup in 1991. There were 2 groups of 4 teams. Each group played in either Pasadena or Los Angelos California. No one really knew what to expect. The semi final teams were US 2:0 Mexico and Honduras 2:0 Costa Rica. USA beat Honduras in penalty kicks in the inaugural event in front of 40,000 screaming fans at LA Memorial Coliseum. Tony Meola the US goal keeper received MVP honors. Total attendance was 197,284 for a total of 16 matches (12,300). CONCACAF had a success first tournament that had not been held for more that 20 years earlier (1971).

Mexico’s Revenge (Gold Cup 1993)
Since USA won in 1991 Mexico clamored to host a group and final. They wanted to reclaim top dog status in CONCACAF. CONCACAF granted the influential federation hosting rights and the Tricolors responded with a domination performance. They scored 28 goals for and only 2 against. Mexican Zaguinho scored tournament high 12 goals in the 1993 Gold Cup which stands as a record today. Mexico also took out some revenge with an emphatic 4-0 romp over their arch rival in 1993 in the fabled Estadio Azteca. Over 120,000 spectators crammed in to see the game and interest was sure building. It was obvious that Mexico had the best team with the most fans in CONCACAF. The confederation was very pleased with the interest and attendance but the profit was just not there in Mexico. Soccer was a business and Warner was looking for a better return for efforts. Gold Cup would return to the US. Total attendance jumped to (32,296 per match) for 16 games.

The Brazilian Draw (Gold Cup 1996) The World Cup USA 94 was held in America and it was very successful. The next installment of the Gold Cup 1996 was very contentious. The confederation was very concerned that any tournament would be lacking in stature compared to the World Cup status. They wanted fans to attend and they did not want a drop off after the first 2 Gold Cups. The decision was made to invite the World Cup Champions Brazil to participate. Brazil could legitimize any tournament and they had fans everywhere during the World Cup. The confederation wanted Brazil fans to pack their stadium for the Gold Cup.
This 1996 format had 3 groups with 9 teams. This format had the winners of each group plus the second best second place finisher. The games were held in the winter season so the 3 California venues were chosen in San Diego, Anaheim and LA. Your chances of advancing really depended on which group you were placed in. The Yanks and Mexico were not placed with Brazil in group play for good reason. The confederation needed their 2 big teams to advance. Mexico, Brazil and the Yanks won their groups while Guatemala squeezed in to make their first semi-finals. Mexico squared off and beat Guatemala in one semi-final 1:0. Brazil knocked the Yanks out of World Cup USA 1994 and again knocked the Yanks out again in Gold Cup 1996 with a score of 1:0. Mexico saves face for CONCACAF by defeating Brazil in the final 2:0. Mexico did not concede a goal the entire tournament. The attendance jumped up to 88,155 in the Los Angeles’ Memorial Coliseum for the final. Total attendance went down to (28,732 per match) but the American dollar ruled.

“Landmark Edition” (Gold Cup 1998)
The 1998 edition had the same format but one extra CONCACAF team was added to make 9 CONCACAF teams and Brazil. Brazil however was bringing it’s senior team this year. There were 3 warm weather cities again that hosted that were LA, Oakland and now Miami Fla. This was an awakening for CONCACAF teams. Jamaica and Guatemala tied the Samba Kings in group play. The USA finally beats Brazil (1-0) in the knockout round. It was first win against Brazil in an international competition and their first goal against them in 68 years. Kasey Keller won MVP honors for his remarkable performance in goal. Brazilian superstar Romario was quoted as saying “That’s the best goalkeeping performance I’ve ever seen…it was an honor to be on the field with him tonight”. This was a huge step that CONCACAF teams could compete and beat the World Cup Champions Brazil. Mexico reasserted it’s dominance over the region by claiming its 3rd Gold Cup in a row. The confederation was also very pleased that the attendance of 91,255 spectators in the LA Coliseum for the Final topping the 1996 edition. Total attendance was for 16 matches (26,707 per match avg). CONCACAF officials were thrilled. After 4 editions the CONCACAF Championship Gold Cup was off and running.

Exotic guest teams! (Gold Cup 2000) The confederation wanted to expand the tournament and believed the fans base was there after the first 4 Gold Cups. They believed they had the teams in CONCACAF to draw attention as one of the top global tournaments. They "The 1998 Gold Cup was a landmark edition firmly establishing the tournament as one of the major competitions in the world," said Confederation President Jack Warner. There was an entirely new format in 2000 which increasing participation to 12 nations. CONCACAF still only fielded 9 CONCACAF nations and 3 exotic guest teams. The guest teams consisted of Columbia, Peru from CONMEBOL and Korean Republic. This gave the Gold Cup a real international flavor to it. The Korean Republic thought the Gold Cup would be an invaluable experience since they were to co-hosting the next World Cup 2002. All guest teams would be bring good quality teams. This format still 3 team groups but a 4th group was added with the extra teams. Two groups played at same location for a good reason. Each game would be a double header to ensure big crowds. The fans could see 2 games from 2 different groups. This also ensured that only 4 teams would be dropped before the knockout round. To me this guaranteed that the US or Mexico was sure to get through to the knock out stage even with guest teams. This format was good for the teams that made the knock out stage but was awful for teams that got knocked out. This format could only have your team playing 2 games in your group and you would be done for another 2 years. To me the most exciting time is in the group play. There is much discussion before play begins. These are always the talk of the “Group of Death” in the World Cup and CONCACAF could have its own “Group of Death” that could be talked about.
Marketing Disaster
Group play in 2000 went along ok until disaster struck in the knockout round. The US and Mexico both lost in the quarter finals by Columbia and Canada respectively. Once Mexico was knocked out so was the crowds and interest. The attendance for the quarter finals set a record for lowest attended knock out stage games at about 3,000 a piece. The final was the lowest attended final in Gold Cup history at a measly 7,000 and that is being generous. Canada saves face for CONCACAF by beating guest team Columbia and wins their first international Championship in over 100 years. This however was a financial and marketing calamity for CONCACAF. Attendance does not increase as the tournament went on but rather declined. Total attendance plummeted to (12,289 per match). CONCACAF did not foresee both the USA and Mexico losing so early and interest disappear.

Downward trend (Gold Cup 2002) CONCACAF wanted to avoid a guest team from knocking either Mexico or the Yanks out in 2002. A simple solution for the 2002 edition was to reduce the guest teams and increase the Caribbean nations. They increased the CONCACAF field to 10 teams (4 Caribbean) with 2 guest teams, Ecuador and Korean Republic. The format stayed the same, 3 locations for group play to ensure large crowds. Attendance was ok until Trinidad & Tobago vs. Martinique with Canada vs. Ecuador was the double header. Only 3,827 turned out for this double header. There was no following for Caribbean teams or the guest team and Canada once again was involved in setting low attendance record.
The quarter finals were a fiasco also. Mexico got knocked out by another guest team (Korean Republic) and the fans left to. Meanwhile trouble was unfolding in the other bracket where Canada beat Martinique. Canada had played the US to a scoreless draw in the semi final game. The confederation has to hold their collective breath because the game had to be decided on penalty kicks. The US keeper Kasey Keller stopped the disaster in the making and the US went on to the Final. The Yanks beat Costa Rica 2-0 with a very poor showing of 14,432 in attendance for the final. The fact is reiterated that it is the Mexican national team that brings the fans. The Central American teams and the Yanks are a distant second with fan support. Most Caribbean teams bring as many as a guest team, which is insignificant. Total attendance sank to 184,979 for 20 matches (9,249per match) and the Gold Cup was on a treacherous downward trend.

Relying on Mexico (Gold 2003) CONCACAF had developed an image and attendance problem with the last 2 installments of the Gold Cup. The image they were suffering from was so called “lesser” marketable teams were going deep in the tournament. These teams did not have the fan base as other top teams and thus the attendance and interest was suffering. The Gold Cup wanted to regain it’s stature that was built up before 2000 and 2002 Gold Cups.
CONCACAF officials went to work to develop a plan to reverse the direction the Gold Cup was headed. Officials knew the US market was important but not as vital as Mexico’s presence through out the tournament. The first step was to have Mexico play on their home pitch throughout the tournament. Mexico could pack the house in their national stadium when they play there and they rarely lose at home. They wanted another marque team that could attract attention, fill the stands and also not get knocked out early. The confederation called upon Brazil again to accomplish this feat. The Confederation made a great adjustment to play the tournament in the summer season to try to get the Northern Markets of the States.
Warner knew the next World Cup CONCACAF nations could place 4 teams in it. Warner worked behind the scene at FIFA and finagled that CONCAFCAF 4th place team would play Oceanic Football Conference for a spot in the World Cup. He wanted all his CONCACAF teams to be playing top competition. He did not shy away in this area. The invitation was also extended to the reigning Copa America Champion Columbia. This Gold Cup 2003 was the breakthrough tournament for quality teams. Four huge issues were addressed and Warner still retained corporate sponsorship by playing the majority of games in the states.
Mexico wanted to have Brazil in their Group A with Honduras in Mexico City. Group B would be played in Miami’s Orange Bowl because of the strong fan support. Gillette Stadium would host Group C and Group D. Double headers at Gillette would ensure a large crowd. The winners of Group play were Mexico in Group A in Mexico City. Columbia won Group B in Miami, the Yanks in Group C and regional power Costa Rica in Group D. CONCACAF powers destroy the Caribbean teams while the guest teams battles each other. Costa Rica asserts is dominance over El Salvador(Q Final scores Mex 5:0 Jamaica, Bra 2:0 Col, USA 5:0 Cuba, CRC 5:2 SLV.) The format was stacked against the guest teams here. After Brazil was placed in the most difficult group with Mexico and Honduras they advanced, only to travel up to Miami from Mexico and play Columbia. Brazil knocked out Columbia but now had to face the USA. The Yanks just dispatched Cuba 5-0 and they were confident and ready. They luckily got by the Yanks here in sudden death. A penalty kick by Diego sank the Yanks but now Brazil had to travel back to Mexico to play the Tri again in Estadio Azteca. (The Semi Finals Bra 2:1 USA, Mex 2:0 CRC.) Mexico had the advantage of not traveling and playing on their home pitch and they were well rested. Mexico again beats a travel weary Brazil and Warner and the federation breathed a sigh of relief. CONCACAF made an excellent pick in Brazil. They elevated the tournament with visibility and their World Wide appeal. They were very entertaining and more importantly to Warner Brazil brought 35,211 fans to the semi finals. This was 5 times as many as the previous year and 80,000 witnessed another Mexico victory over Brazil and calm was restored in the Gold Cup. Total attendance regains it’s footing and goes back up to over 392,000 spectators. Future hosting
An alarming issue developed in Mexico however that troubled the host. When Brazil played Honduras in Mexico only a scant 3,000 spectators showed in the cavernous Estadio Azteca. This attendance was distressing at best to the confederation and Warner. Mexico had over 150 Million soccer crazed people in its population but no one was interested in other national teams. Mexico could not get a good crowd even when popular teams like Brazil and Honduras played in Mexico City. How could a Central American country possibly host or hold such an event when their population is less than 1/10 of Mexico’s? This attendance figure coupled with the 2000 and 2002 attendance disasters checkmated other countries from hosting. CONCACAF could not take that chance. They wanted to build the Gold Cup not kill it like previous regional CONCACAF Championship. The regional Championship will stay in the states where Warner could get the most cash and largest crowds.

Northern Markets and 4 team groups (Gold Cup 2005)
The Gold Cup 2005 edition was a very ambitious undertaking for the confederation. This would be the first time the locations would increase from 3 to a whopping 7 venues. The venues consisted of Carson California Home Depot Center, LA Memorial Coliseum, Houston’s Reliant Stadium and the ever popular Miami Florida’s Orange Bowl. The northern markets of Seattle, New England and New York fans were eager to show that they like soccer too. These northern areas were huge markets to be tapped and officials were right. This also made the tournament a national event connecting both the East and West coast with games.
The format was changed slightly again for the better. The groups finally had 4 team groups of 3 groups for the first time. This meant your team at lease could play at least 3 games in the regional Championship. This almost guarantees that the US, playing on its home pitch will not be one of the 4 going home after group play. This has been a good “catch net” for CONCACAF to almost guarantee both the US team and the Mexican team could stumble in group play but recover enough the make the knock out phase. CONCACAF needs either the US (TV market and corporate interest) or Mexico (fans-attendance) to continue in the tourney to make it a success (I am talking money here). Again there would be double headers to ensure attendance at every game. 2 guest teams in South Africa and Columbia were added to spice up the 2005 field.
The play: Honduras came out on top in Group A in Miami with Panama, Columbia and T&T. Group B started in Seattle than moved to the East Coast Foxborough, Ma. Group B was a tie between Costa Rica and the Yanks with 7 points apiece. Mexico won Group C with South Africa, Jamaica and Guatemala. They started in Carson then moves to LA California.
The knockout round had (QF=Col 2:1 Mex, Pan 5:3 S Africa(penalty kicks), USA 3:1 Jam, Hon 3:2 CRC). Mexico again loses in the quarter finals however this time the attendance did not suffer as much. Fans from other national teams were building and they turned out to support their team. Panama went from minnow to instant titans when they knocked off South Africa in the quarter finals and then beat Columbia in the Semi-finals to rid the Final of any guest team.(Semi-F Pan 3:2 Col, USA 2:1 Hon ). The team that was waiting for them was the King Pin… USA. Panama shut the Yanks out in regulation before succumbing to penalty kicks in the Final. Louis Tejada (Pan) received MVP honors for his outstanding play for Panama. Panama showed the depth of CONCACAF that they too could play with the big boys and knock them out in a major international tourney. The story for Warner however was the total attendance which skyrockets to over 800,000. The confederation had a good financial decision to increase the venues to 7. Many CONCACAF teams have numerous fans living throughout America. These 7 venues totaled over (32,000 per match). They witnessed many exciting and entertaining matches by doubling the previous edition.

Increase Media Coverage (Gold Cup 2007)
The 2007 edition kept the field of 3 groups with 4 teams. It worked great in 2005 so why change it. The only tweak was the dropping guest teams. The national teams consisted entirely of CONCACAF teams in the 2007 Gold Cup. This was a great decision by the federation to give 12 national teams a chance to participate in their own regional Championship. The winner would represent CONCACAF for the 2009 FIFA Confederations Cup. All CONCACAF teams would be bringing their best senior team to play. The quality of play was not compromised.
Group play was the tightest it has even been. Canada’s Julian De Guzman received MVP honors for his outstanding play that helped Canada out of the tightest Group A. They were followed closely by Costa Rica, Guadeloupe and Haiti. Group B started in Carson, California then moved to Gillette Stadium in New England. This group had The Yanks (host) continued their dominance in group play by beating Guatemala, El Salvador and Trinidad & Tobago. It was the Yanks and the Guatemala who made the knockout round. Group C started at Giants Stadium, NY then moved to Reliant Stadium in Houston. Honduras won the hardest group consisting of Mexico, Panama and Cuba. (The Cuban team folded after players defected.) Attendance increases by breaking up group play into 2 venues and a quarter final. The fan only has 2 chances to see his/her national team play before they move on. There were many stories to follow in Gold Cup 2007. Guadeloupe had a fairy tale ride to the semi-finals. This was a great story of the little island battling and beating the powerhouses of CONCACAF. Guadeloupe’s great run will be talked about in future years by football enthusiasts. This is what the Gold Cup needs. A rich history of CONCACAF teams (not guest teams) upsetting the powers of CONCACAF. Then there were the continuous stories about the turmoil in the Mexican locker room. The Media attention Mexico’s national team garners is astonishing. Then there also were many questionable calls by the referees where Panama, Costa Rica and Canada were on the unfavorable end and Mexico and the USA benefited. Quarter Finals The US held on the beat a swift Panama team. Canada pounded Guatemala, Mexico scored in extra time in a very physical game against Costa Rica, and Guadeloupe score 2 early goals to overcome the powerful Honduras side.(USA 2:1 Pan, Can 3:0 Guatemala, Mex 1:0 CRC added time, Guadeloupe 2:1 Honduras.) The Semi Final were 2 excellent games. The USA held on to beat a well organized Canada team, while Pavel Pardo’s 30 yard strike eliminated upstart Guadeloupe. (USA 2:1 Mex.) The final was a wide open, entertaining game and drew in a 2.5 national rating on Univision. That translates to 2.83 Million households, nearly double the 1.48 million homes that watched the 2005 Gold Cup final. The attendance also increased 15% to (36,859 per match). The 2007 Gold Cup was considered one of the best Gold Cup ever with attendance, marketability, media coverage and the play on the field.

[1] Frank Dell’Apa; Boston Globe June 26, 2007

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