BELO HORIZONTE, Brazil — The Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football is a potpourri of 41 mostly small nations that kick soccer balls in a semi-organized manner. For the most part, CONCACAF is a sleepy outpost on the global frontier, boasting the United States and Mexican men’s programs, the U.S. women and, on occasion, a feel-good story from the islands (i.e. Reggae Boyz and Soca Warriors).
But the organization gained fresh respect and admiration here in Brazil by advancing three members beyond the World Cup group stage for the first time in its unremarkable history.
*The Americans were picked to finish third or fourth in the so-called Group of Death; they claimed second before losing in extra time in the round of 16.
*The Mexicans figured to take second or third behind Brazil; they were No. 2 before pushing a heavy favorite to the brink of elimination in the knockout stage.
*Costa Rica’s Ticos were given little chance of gaining even a point against England, Uruguay and Italy; they topped the group and cleared the second round before falling on penalty kicks in the quarterfinals.
Removing three-loss Honduras from the mix, those CONCACAF reps compiled a 5-3-5 record. Just two World Cups ago, the region went 1-8-3.
“To be honest, I know people, how they look from Europe over to our region,” Jurgen Klinsmann, the U.S. team’s German coach, said recently. “With these results now, things are changing. People look differently to our region and say: ‘You know what, there is a lot happening here.’ ”
With three of four teams advancing, CONCACAF had the second-highest success rate behind South America (five of six). Europe was six of 13, Africa two for five and Asia none of four.
As it turned out, CONCACAF’s nemeses were not Brazil, Portugal and England. Rather, they were the Low Countries: Belgium ousted the United States and the Netherlands bounced both Mexico and Costa Rica in dramatic fashion.
Three of the finest goalkeeping performances in the tournament were submitted by CONCACAF figures: Tim Howard of the United States, Guillermo Ochoa of Mexico and Keylor Navas of Costa Rica. American captain Clint Dempsey scored more goals in group play (two) than FIFA player of the year Cristiano Ronaldo (one).
The region remains far behind Europe and South America, titans of international soccer. But the encouraging results here raised the eyebrows of fans and media, and drawn attention from European clubs seeking to harvest fresh talent. AS Roma has taken serious interest in U.S. right back DeAndre Yedlin and several Costa Rican players have raised their profiles after not losing during the normal course of their five matches. (The Ticos were 2-0-1 in group play and had two knockout games decided by penalty kicks, results that go into the record books as ties.)
Confederation President Jeffrey Webb tweeted: “Very proud of CONCACAF achievements at World Cup. #WeAreCONCACAF”
In an odd twist, the region’s success unified the respective fan bases, who, in any other circumstances, would not speak kindly of one another. Many Americans backing Mexico’s effort, Hondurans supporting the Costa Ricans, and so on …
Had Costa Rica beaten the Netherlands, the Ticos would have become just the second CONCACAF side to hit the semifinals. The United States accomplished it at the inaugural 1930 tournament in Uruguay. Since then, CONCACAF teams have gone as far as the quarterfinals five times.
This year’s results have further bolstered CONCACAF’s case for a fourth automatic berth in the 32-team field. As it stands, three teams are guaranteed passage while a fourth must navigate an international playoff. During this cycle, Mexico’s failure to gain an automatic slot by finishing fourth in the qualifying competition worked in CONCACAF’s favor. A strong program caught in an untimely rut, the Mexicans proceeded to defeat Oceania champion New Zealand in a two-game series and book a ticket to Brazil.
The only other time CONCACAF sent four teams to the World Cup was in 2006, when Trinidad and Tobago’s Soca Warriors defeated Bahrain in a playoff.
A fourth automatic slot would probably come at the expense of Asia, which posted an 0-9-3 record at this year’s tournament. FIFA is not expected to address the matter of 2018 qualification berths until next year, at the earliest.
During the group stage, when CONCACAF teams were faring well, U.S. Soccer Federation President Sunil Gulati, a member of FIFA’s executive committee, was asked about the region’s hopes of additional slots.
“I don’t know. So much of that ends up in negotiation and it’s early to say that. It’s not based on one World Cup. Clearly the Asian teams’ [performance], the African teams’ [performance], that would certainly be a very positive sign [for CONCACAF], but it’s not just about advancing [out of the group stage]; it’s about what happens from there. You get a couple of CONCACAF teams in the quarters, that would go a long way and send a pretty strong message.”
Only 10 CONCACAF teams have ever qualified for a World Cup, and just five have made multiple appearances (U.S., Mexico, Costa Rica, Honduras and El Salvador).
CONCACAF’s display here should heighten interest in tournaments the next two summers: the 2015 Gold Cup and 2016 Copa America.
The Gold Cup serves as CONCACAF’s biennial championship and has no bearing on World Cup qualification. However, if the United States wins, it earns a berth in the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup in Russia, an important eight-team dress rehearsal for the World Cup a year later on Russia soil. If a team other than the U.S. wins, it would have to face the Americans in a playoff to decide the Confederations Cup berth. Mexico and the United States have won 11 of 12 Gold Cup titles (Canada was the exception in 2000).
Copa America is the South American equivalent to the Gold Cup and is the third most prestigious national team trophy behind the World Cup and European Championship. To celebrate the 100th anniversary, South American officials hatched the idea of a Pan-American tournament to be held at undetermined U.S. venues. The United States, Mexico and four other CONCACAF teams will join the 10 members of Confederacion Sudamericana de Futbol, better known as CONMEBOL.
And you thought CONCACAF was a tongue-twister …