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Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

This tournament's nothing but a winner

Copa America Centenario has huge upsides for all

Posted: 05/4/2014 1:00 AM | Comments: 0

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On Thursday, the confederations that govern soccer in the Americas -- CONCACAF in the North, CONMEBOL in the South -- announced an agreement to hold a joint tournament just over two years from now.

In June 2016, the Copa America Centenario will be staged in about a dozen cities throughout the United States, bringing together 16 teams from two continents and creating the sort of exposure the sport won't have experienced this side of Europe since the 1994 World Cup.

Talk about a win-win, hitting two birds with one stone -- insert cliché here.

The only surprise about the competition, which will celebrate CONMEBOL's 100th anniversary, is it will be the first of its kind in a region that has long craved what it can offer.

CONCACAF, of course, has its own championship: the biennial Gold Cup. But it's held far too often, features few drawing-card players and teams and is spread thin over the entire United States, which since 2005 has been its exclusive host.

Needless to say, it generates next to no interest outside North America and not much more within it.

It is embarrassingly small-time.

CONMEBOL, meanwhile, has its own problems with the Copa America, which recently switched from a triennial schedule to a quadrennial one.

With only 10 member associations in the confederation, outside participants have historically been invited to the tournament to create a more coherent format. Mexico and the United States have contested the last two instalments, and Costa Rica, Honduras and Japan have also taken part.

The result has been a cheapened competition, delegitimized by non-regional invitees that have typically sent under-strength sides to the event.

And for all the star power at CONMEBOL's disposal (the squads of Brazil and Argentina, for example, include some of the biggest names in soccer), the Copa America has never experienced the sort of status and popularity enjoyed by the European Championship.

Incidentally, North and South America each has what the other craves, which is why the Copa America Centenario is such a no-brainer.

In its southern counterparts, North America gets the marquee players and teams it needs to finally stage a high-profile event with genuine marketability. Its sports fans, who yawn at anything perceived as second-rate, stand to be well-served.

Conversely, by taking their product northward, the South Americans turn a continent of 530 million people into stakeholders and crack the world's biggest economy. They get the sponsorship dollars and television numbers they desire and avoid the awkward invitations to non-CONMEBOL participants.

But it's important that the tournament isn't a one-off.

Already, CONCACAF president Jeffrey Webb has spoken to the Copa America Centenario's ability to unite the Americas "like never before," and CONMEBOL chief Eugenio Figueredo has said his organization will not wait "another 100 years" to organize a follow-up competition, adding he would like to see a "permanent joining of forces with CONCACAF."

Such an arrangement only makes sense.

Because if both continents go their separate ways when the trophy is awarded on June 26, 2016, they'll be retreating to the sleepy mediocrity that inspired this event in the first place.

Qualifying

-- All 10 CONMEBOL nations are automatically qualified.

-- The United States and Mexico are automatically qualified.

-- The winners of the 2014 Copa Centroamericana and 2014 Carribbean Cup also go into the draw.

-- The top four teams from the 2015 Gold Cup not otherwise qualified (this is Canada's route) will contest a playoff to determine the final two participants.

Twitter @JerradPeters

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 4, 2014 B10

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