Editorial: Islands in the sun that aren’t afraid of the dark

Within an hour of our story being published about the discussion of a CFU breakaway from CONCACAF there was talk on Twitter of how many places the Caribbean could have for the World Cup – anything from 1.5 to 3.5, and why not? 

The current FIFA presidency is defined by appealing to the lowest common denominator of more money for each and every federation and increased World Cup places. It is somewhat in keeping with the times and FIFA that the Caribbean conversation starts to happen now. After all, the Oceania Football Confederation look likely to get a guaranteed World Cup place and play-off. The Caribbean could argue that with its larger membership and competitive nations it should be at least on par.

But when the news broke it also caused a minor hurricane in football’s political circles in the region. It would cause a major Tsunami across the world if the Caribbean decided that breakaway and self-determination was the best way forward to develop their football talent.

The reactions of some of football’s leaders within the CFU, and wider, seem to be more to do with the news being leaked from the executive committee meeting rather than any analysis of the issues at stake. It may also have a lot to do with personal rather than national interest. One can’t help feeling that those shouting loudest about this being a ridiculous idea are in danger of missing the point.

So, cutting through the noise – and there will likely be more of it but I’ll come to that later – what actually is the situation?

Firstly, there was no commitment to breaking away from CONCACAF by the CFU. But there was a commitment to learning more and discussion about what it could look like – hopefully a little more balanced than the reaction to the news that a discussion was now on the table, at least in an exploratory form,

The rumour of a breakaway has been circulating for some months, it was even floated in the Jamaica Observer newspaper as something that needed to be discussed by a former Jamaican and FIFA football official in the week before the CFU met. Conversations with a number of football people across the islands confirm that feelings are strong and deep about the need for meaningful support and development from a regional governing body.

So it was somewhat inevitable that breakaway talk would at some point get on to a meeting agenda – it would be neglect if it hadn’t done considering the current political and financial position of Caribbean football.

The Caribbean as a unified 31 nation block (25 at FIFA) is a small but significant group in football’s political circles. But it is a significance that has never translated through to the region on a proportional scale in terms of its football programmes – where it has proved it can be a force at world level with its politicians, on the pitch it just hasn’t lived up to its athletic potential.

The biggest reason for that is that no-one has invested consistently or coherently in a region where the cash seemed to disappear, more often that not before it even hit the federation accounts. The last two presidents of CONCACAF from the Caribbean creamed off the money and the islands, unfairly, look like they are being made to pay the price for their self-enrichment. How much penance do they have to pay collectively for the sins of brothers Warner and Webb?

The new leadership of CONCACAF quite rightly doesn’t want a return to the old days and ways. It also, quite wrongly, has set a course that deprives the Caribbean Football Union (CFU) of cash to run its activities, involves itself in elections by backing ‘friendly’ candidates, has taken control of Caribbean cup competitions as though the CFU didn’t exist, and has revamped its own competitions in a way that makes it difficult for anything more than minor participation of Caribbean teams at the region’s top football table (and this is just in the last couple of months).

A fair deal for the Caribbean in football’s new world order? Or perhaps an echo of President Trump’s “America first. America first”. But was it really ever any different?

CONCACAF would (and does) vehemently argue that this is not the case and a distortion of the reality of the situation. It would almost be a believable defence if it weren’t for the unbelievable lengths CONCACAF and its administration have gone to sideline and emaciate the CFU. CONCACAF will be screaming ‘alternative fact’ (‘fake news’ is really the phrase of current time) but their actions point to a different story of fakery – one that has driven the breakaway discussion on to the CFU agenda.

One of CONCACAF’s ruling elite actually told this writer after the confederation had elected its new president Victor Montagliani in Mexico City last May, that the plan was to “bring the Caribbean under control.” That implies that the Caribbean was out of control – some kind of  naughty talented child that needs to be reigned in and taught how to behave.

Inflammatory rhetoric? Come on, wake up and smell the coffee. It looks like a significant chunk of the Caribbean might have.

So what are the pros and cons behind breakaway? Really it comes down to money – the key factor in how self determining a body can be.

An independent Caribbean with its statutory grant money coming directly from FIFA and supporting a central organisation would undoubtedly see more money than currently makes its way to competition organisation and grassroots structures. To make this work the Caribbean would in turn have to build its competition product and sell those rights in a fickle commercial marketplace – real football work. The argument against this, and it is a valid one, is the potential risk in not achieving this in a market that has so far been unable to secure a strong and independent commercial platform.

Alternatively the Caribbean can sit and rely on disbursements from CONCACAF’s developing commercial programmes. This would be attractive if the money was actually handed to the places it were needed. It also requires a level of trust in the top body that money will be made available – and that is the risk factor in this course of action. The recent evidence of CONCACAF indicates it probably wouldn’t. When it comes to the CFU, CONCACAF prefers cuts rather financial encouragement.

There are strong individual voices within the Caribbean diaspora – and this is where the noise comes back – that will argue powerfully against any form of breakaway. There is a fear that breaking away will lose everything they already have. This is not an unfounded fear, but if you have nothing to lose what are you losing? You still have a responsibility to develop your country’s football.

This in turn could obviously lead to a conflict between personal and national interest. What might be a new opportunity for a small nation could spell the end of the line for a political bigwig. Many of the CFU officials pulled into FIFA and CONCACAF service have a higher political standing in world football than their countries.

But that kind of conflict at decision-making time is quite a way down the line at this stage. The noise that comes with it probably isn’t.

However, the first step is to look at the options and hold an intelligent debate based around facts – surely the mark of a democratic process. That is what the CFU agreed to explore last weekend.

Paul Nicholson is the editor of Insideworldfootball. Contact him at moc.l1721692861labto1721692861ofdlr1721692861owedi1721692861sni@n1721692861osloh1721692861cin.l1721692861uap1721692861