By Paul Nicholson at the Rose Bowl, Pasadena
June 14 – The expanded 16-team Gold Cup kicks off Saturday at the Rose Bowl, Pasadena, the start of a 31 match, 17 venue voyage around the US – with stop offs in Costa Rica and Jamaica – for Concacaf’s best national teams.
It is the culmination of a process that has seen the confederation re-organise its national team competitions to provide more opportunity to play meaningful and more competitive international fixtures.
“This Gold Cup is a statement on the growth of our Confederation,” said president Victor Montagliani. “In a very short time not only have we expanded the tournament to 16 teams, based on the quality that a lot of our countries have shown in the last few years, but also we’re taking it outside of North America for the first time to Costa Rica and to Jamaica. Those are significant steps.”
In 2017 the Gold Cup visited 14 venues across the US. This edition it will progress via 15 different stadia in 13 US cities before reaching the final at Soldier Field in Chicago on July. Eight of those stadia are in contention to host matches for the 2026 World Cup that will be expanded to 48 teams from the current 32.
The winning of the hosting of 2026 was a major landmark for Concacaf in shaking off a troubled past that saw two former presidents arrested and another indicted, along with a swathe of national federation executives. Concacaf had moved on, and pretty rapidly too, with its joint US, Mexico, Canada bid.
Neither Mexico or Canada are hosting games this Gold Cup, though they have done in previous editions. The inclusion of Costa Rica and Jamaica as hosts is part of a more expansionist philosophy.
“It’s a big commitment to take the Gold Cup outside of North America, so we can be closer to our fans in Central America, taking games to Costa Rica, to the Caribbean in Jamaica,” said Concacaf general secretary Philippe Moggio.
Saturdays double header in Pasadena sees Canada and Mexico drawn in the same group. Both are in development phases with new managers and a greater emphasis on youth as they look ahead to World Cup qualifying for 2022 and beyond.
Canada won the Gold Cup in 2000, one of the biggest upsets in Gold Cup history. Mexico have won seven of the 15 editions (the US have won six and are the reigning champions) and expect to win every edition.
In their group they face Cuba and Martinique. Cuba are something of an unknown quantity and in previous tournaments have seen players defect to the US during the group stages. Martinique may be one of the smallest countries in the group – they are not recognised by FIFA as they come under the wing and development finance of France – but they have a talented squad that can draw on a significant pool of French players.
Expanding to 16 teams opens up significant opportunities for new talent and increased fan engagement across the region. “You can feel the excitement in the countries that haven’t qualified regularly or are qualifying for the first time,” said Montagliani. “There has been talk of mismatches but I don’t see that. With the Nations League they are realising that there is now something real to play for. They see a pathway to the bigger tournaments and they want to be there. They get it.”
In a letter to his member associations two weeks ago before the FIFA Congress ion Paris Montagliani talked about the “togetherness” that has “helped us earn the right to think long-term and look towards the unprecedented opportunities on the horizon.”
Unity and progression has been a common theme on the journey to Saturday night at the Rose Bowl. “The landscape is very different from when I was elected in 2016,” said Montagliani, who was re-elected unopposed to the Concacaf presidency in May.
“In 2016 we all stood together in the face of adversity and criticism. In 2019 we are getting praises. Today we are not talking about governance reforms but focussing on football. We have achieved more than we could have imagined…Back then we were thinking in terms of seconds, minutes and hours. Now we have earned the right to think beyond one day at a time,” he continued.
“You can now taste the football in our region. It has become the total focus.”
Saturday that focus is in Pasadena, Sunday it is Costa Rica, Monday it is Jamaica, Tuesday in St Paul, Wednesday in Denver and so on.
Let the show begin. As the unusual but increasingly apt tournament catch line says, ‘This is Ours’. Proudly and rightly so.
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