One of the interesting features of the Copa América tournament the last two decades has been the guest countries invited to participate. With CONMEBOL having 10 member countries, inviting two more to fill out the field to an even 12 (for standard group stage sizes of four teams each) makes sense.
Mexico has been a frequent participant, as practically a junior CONMEBOL partner at this point, between the Copa América berths and annual participation in the Copa Libertadores tournament, South America's version of the Champions League. And plenty of other countries from CONCACAF and on one occasion, Japan, have filled out the ranks.
But what would it mean if a non-South American team won the Copa América?
The best chance, perhaps, for that to happen comes this year for the special Copa América Centenario, held off South American soil for the first time, in the United States, and featuring an expanded field that will include six additional countries alongside the 10 South American teams.
Now, surely some, maybe all of the CONCACAF teams involved in this year's tournament (U.S., Mexico, Costa Rica, Jamaica, Panama and Haiti) will be cannon fodder for the South American teams, but the uncertainty of the tournament historically and superior quality of some of the CONCACAF teams compared to some of the CONMEBOL sides will lead to mixed results overall, one imagines.
And with the U.S. playing better in recent friendlies than they have in some time and on home soil, and Mexico playing in their second homeland, effectively, due to the volume of friendlies they play in the U.S., and the transitional nature of several South American sides, this may be the year a CONCACAF team wins CONMEBOL's tournament. Of course, the money is firmly on Mexico to make the best run of the Northern sides, and they've been runners-up twice in the "normal" version of the tournament.
So it could happen, certainly. But the reaction?
Most likely, the response will be "Yeah, but this wasn't a real Copa América."
Why isn't it real? Well, for whatever excitement the actual games may bring, the pretense for creating the tournament is flimsy at best. Yes, this is the 100th anniversary of the first Copa América this year, but it seems very strange to organize a special tournament when it normally runs in four-year cycles and the last edition was just last year. It's almost like this whole thing is a giant cash grab...Yep, that's what it boils down to, really.
At the same time, there is a chance that beyond the kneejerk "South American teams weren't really trying!" reactions that would inevitably pop up if a CONCACAF team won the tournament, having a CONCACAF team win the tournament could have long-lasting ramifications.
It's little secret CONMEBOL has coveted the hearts, minds and yes, money of CONCACAF audiences for some time. That's why Mexico regularly participates in the Copas América and Libertadores -- South America wants those pesos, and the market share from soccer-crazy Mexico.
If the U.S. or Mexico, or another CONCACAF country, triumphs, there's no doubt the calls to merge the two confederations will grow. Yes, actual governance will probably thwart any real attempt at this -- why would CONMEBOL want to water down their votes merging with the much larger CONCACAF? What's the tangible benefits for both sides?
But calls to expand the Copa Libertadores beyond Mexico, even with the insane travel demands that will bring? Future calls to play this expanded Copa América format if the CONCACAF teams perform well and it's financially successful? That will undoubtedly increase, and we may find some real developments on that front.
And South America will only get really nervous if the financial and soccer balance firmly moves in CONCACAF's direction, for the long haul. If a CONCACAF team wins a Copa América? It's not ideal for CONMEBOL, but not a disaster. If it starts happening on a regular basis? A lot would need to happen to get to this point, but CONMEBOL's clamor to team up with CONCACAF would probably end in a real hurry.
What do you think? Leave a comment below!