Copa America. And Japan. And Qatar.

By | February 11, 2019

While learning about South America’s passion for soccer this week, I couldn’t get something that I had recently seen out of my mind: Copa America, the tournament of national teams from South America will feature two teams not from South America. I had seen a notification that the field for this summer’s tournament had been set. It features many obvious names: Brazil, Argentina, Colombia- but Japan and Qatar? What were they doing there?

This week I read about the passion that Brazil has for soccer and how central it is to their national identity. And I watched a documentary about Diego Maradona, an Argentine soccer player so great that some fans created a religion centered around worshiping him. And I remember Galeano’s writing about the rich history of soccer in South America. How could a continent so proud about their soccer tradition invite outside – and seemingly random – countries in to play for their crown? What would Galeano think about this?

Upon doing some research I found out that since 1993, the tournament has featured a 12-team format. And because there are only 10 teams in CONMEBOL, the South American soccer federation, they invite two teams from other federations to participate. The United States, Mexico, Japan and Costa Rica are among the teams that have participated in the past. Mexico has even made the final on two separate occasions. How did the people of South America feel about the championship of South America being played between one of their own and a team from North America? What if Mexico had won and become “champions” of South America?

In looking around online, I have found little explanation as to why outside teams are invited other than that it is a 12-team tournament and there are only 10 teams in South America. I don’t fully understand why it needs to be a 12-team tournament and would think that settling for a 10-team format would be much better than inviting outside countries to vie for the continent’s crown. I can’t imagine how ACC basketball fans would feel if it was announced that Ohio State was being invited to contend for this years ACC championship in order to bring the tournament to an even 16 teams.

I imagine that the reasoning has something to do with creating international appeal for the tournament and helping to drive up the price of the television rights. This especially makes sense when taken into consideration that the United States and Mexico, the two largest countries in the same time zone, are the two most frequent invitees to the tournament. And to be honest, I don’t have as much of an issue with teams from North America playing in the Copa America. Inviting the two powerhouses from North America makes it a true Copa America, involving all the strongest teams from North and South America.

But this year’s selection of Japan and Qatar make the matter even more confusing for me. One must question whether Qatar, the small but wealthy country known to have made bribes in order to host the 2022 World Cup, made similar bribes to attain inclusion in this tournament. Otherwise, I can’t think of a reason that Qatar should be included in the Copa America.

As a relative newcomer to soccer fandom, it shocks me that a sport so steeped in tradition commits what appears to be such a blatant sin against soccer culture. I have to imagine that Galeano complained every time he had to watch a Copa America game that included a team from an outside confederation. To bring up another example of American sports, how would Texans feel if a team from California came in to compete for their coveted state football championship? The Texas football director would be out of a job or worse immediately.  The Texans simply wouldn’t allow it.  It seems like CONMEBOL are deliberately sacrificing the integrity of the tournament and don’t even provide much of an explanation for why they do this.

I am interested to hear if anyone has a better explanation for the reason this is done! And I am also interested to hear the opinions of fans of South American teams and whether it is as odd to them as it is to me.




Murray, Scott. “A brief history of … the Copa América, the tournament with a special kind of beauty.” The Guardian, 17 June 2015, Accessed 10 Feb. 2019.

2 thoughts on “Copa America. And Japan. And Qatar.

  1. Marco Gonzalez Blancas

    I know that the announcement for the teams invited to Copa America was made almost a year ago, but let’s not forget that Qatar just won the AFC (Asian Football Confederation) Asian Cup about three weeks ago. The final was actually played against Japan, the other team from outside of CONMEBOL invited to Copa America. I think it is great for CONMEBOL to invite teams from other confederations. As a Mexican fan, I have enjoyed watching my team play some of the best national teams in the world such as Brazil and Argentina in a tournament other than the World Cup. Playing these teams in a friendly is not the same. As we all know, friendlies are often full of substitutions and other techniques that coaches experiment with in order to get ready for the games that actually matter.
    As you mentioned, Mexico has made it to two finals in 10 participations it has had in Copa America. Mexico lost both finals to South American countries. I think these invitations make the tournament more interesting as it introduces more competition and new styles of play to the tournament. This is very important for the South American team’s preparation as they must be ready to face those new styles of play and defend the whole continent’s honor. They are not going to let a team from another confederation come and win their cup. Although the AFC teams might not be at the same level as the CONMEBOL teams, Qatar and Japan might be the best two teams in their confederation as they played the final of the Asian Cup.
    Do I think any of these two AFC teams will win the Copa America? I don’t think so. They will definitely bring more competition to the tournament though and this will be to the benefit of not only the South American teams, but also of the spectators that will be enjoying the tournament in the stadium or through their TV.

  2. Mark Birmingham


    I really enjoyed your post. I am not as plugged in to the South American international soccer community, so i cant provide good insight on how this years tournament looks in the eyes of a true fan. However, I had a few thoughts regarding your confusion about why the tournament would select outside countries. First, I think you were on to something when you speculated whether Qatar bribed their way into the tournament. Sadly, I do believe money is the driving factor of all decisions. However, out of good faith of the system I will try to provide a good reason why the tournament would invite outside countries.

    I would argue the leaders of the tournament value having diversity in the the styles of play. As I have read in Kittleson’s book, there is a lot of pride to be taken based off the way your team plays. Perhaps, the leaders of the tournament want to showcase many different types of play styles. So that the South American teams can beat the teams with unaccepted styles of football. As much as the South American teams pride themselves on their traditions, they aren’t worth much if they aren’t associated with winning. Beating outsider teams may provide the validation for the South American styles that they need to continue to grow a domestic fan base.


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