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, www.theguardian.com/sport/2015/jun/17copa-america-brief-history-conmebol. Accessed 10 Feb. 2019.