Tuesday, July 23, 2024

Euros teams playing in the Copa America is the last thing football needs

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In a summer featuring both the Copa America and the European Championship, it was inevitable that someone would be asked to compare the levels in the two tournaments. That someone turned out to be Lionel Scaloni, Argentina’s Copa America and World Cup-winning manager.

“I don’t think it’s more difficult from one competition to another,” Scaloni opined. “There are some important teams that have advanced to the semi-finals of the Euros, teams that we faced in the World Cup, and it went well for us.

Lionel Scaloni (Omar Vega/Getty Images)

“But that doesn’t mean that we could go to the European Championship and win it. Or, maybe, yes (Argentina could win it),” he continued. “I think the level is very even. I would like a European team to one day be invited to a Copa America to see what it is like to play in it — and the opposite, as well.”

Well, how about it?

First, a South American side participating in the European Championship would be extremely unlikely. The difficulty of European nations qualifying for the tournament shouldn’t be underestimated — even with a 24-team final competition, you have nations with memorable recent Euros performances, for example 2004 winners Greece or 2016 semi-finalists Wales, or teams with genuine star players, such as Norway (Erling Haaland and Martin Odegaard) and Sweden (Alexander Isak), unable to make it. On a basic mathematical basis, there would be no incentive for smaller UEFA nations to accept the introduction of an outsider.

But a European nation participating in the Copa America is more viable — and the idea has been floated before.

While the current Copa America, and its 2016 edition, includes six guest sides from the CONCACAF region (North and Central America and the Caribbean) to take it up to a neat 16-team tournament, usually the 10 CONMEBOL (South American) nations need to find two others to create a field of 12. These have most regularly also been the CONCACAF nations — Mexico, Costa Rica, the United States, Jamaica, Panama, Haiti and Honduras have participated in the past — but Japan have appeared twice, in 1999 and 2019. In the latter, they were joined by fellow Asian guests Qatar, who were desperately trying to test themselves in a competitive setting ahead of the World Cup they were hosting three years later.

Qatar playing in the Copa America in 2019 (Alessandra Cabral/Getty Images)

Japan were also supposed to play in the 2011 edition in Argentina but withdrew following the Tohoku earthquake that March when almost 20,000 people died. Their replacements were, eventually, Costa Rica. But CONMEBOL’s first idea for a team to fill the gap was more interesting: Spain, then the European and world champions.

“The RFEF’s (the Spanish football federation) board appreciated the invitation made by the president of CONMEBOL, Nicolas Leoz, to participate in the Copa America, but have declined because of calendar problems,” read a statement by Spain. “This isn’t the first time Spain have received an invitation to play in the Copa America, but the dates and the tight competition calendar have always made it impossible to participate. The board do not rule out the possibility of accepting a future invitation.”

That final line was intriguing.

There has, in recent years, been closer cooperation between UEFA and CONMEBOL.

In 2020, the two confederations signed a ‘memorandum of understanding’, which in practical terms has meant, for example, the re-introduction of the little-played  ‘Finalissima’, a match between the winners of the previous European Championship and Copa America.

This hadn’t been held since 1993 (which was its first playing since the inaugural game in 1985) but was staged at London’s Wembley Stadium in June 2022, with Argentina running out 3-0 winners against Italy. The women’s version took place at the same venue a year later, with England triumphing against Brazil on penalties following a 1-1 draw.

Argentina winning the 2022 Finalissima at Wembley (Elianto/Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images)

We’ve had the UEFA-CONMEBOL Club Challenge, essentially a Supercup game played between the winners of the Europa League and its equivalent, the Copa Sudamericana. Sevilla of Spain defeated Ecuadorian visitors Independiente del Valle on penalties last summer, also after a 1-1 draw.

There has also been an agreement to mutually recognise equivalent coaching licenses, for referees to participate in ‘exchanges’ (an Argentine officiating team took charge of two games in this summer’s Euros) — and, intriguingly in the context of Scaloni’s comments at the top of this article, a suggestion South American sides might compete in future editions of the UEFA Nations League.

Notably, both confederations oppose FIFA’s suggestion that World Cups should be played every two years rather than the long-established four. Other regional confederations, less concerned by player burnout and more in need of revenue, are keener on the idea.

A potential solution would be the introduction of a tournament that involves sides from the four other worldwide regions — Africa, Asia, North/Central America and the Caribbean, and Oceania — who haven’t made as much progress at World Cup level over the first quarter of this century as had been hoped.

That, really, is the issue world football should be focused on.

For all the sporadic applause for sides from other regions ‘catching up’ with the elite, the sad reality is that the nine current bookmakers’ favourites for World Cup 2026 are the same nine as for the 2006 edition: the usual big seven from Europe — England, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal and Spain — plus the big two from South America, Argentina and Brazil.

The only other countries that have muscled their way into that kind of status over the past two decades have been Belgium and Uruguay, one more each from those same two regions.

(Richard Sellers/Sportsphoto/Allstar via Getty Images)

At various points, change has felt imminent.

The USMNT made progress in the first decade of the century but stalled. Mexico looked a seriously good side in 2010 and 2014 but have gone backwards. Japan and South Korea seemed on the rise at roughly that same time, having co-hosted the 2002 World Cup, but, along with Australia (formerly of Oceania, now Asian for football purposes), in hindsight simply produced a golden generation rather than anything more substantial.

African sides have been considered the coming force since the 1990s, but while Morocco reaching the semi-finals of the most recent World Cup broke new ground, it can’t be ignored that their team in Qatar largely consisted of European-born players, which isn’t a viable route to long-term progress for most other nations.

Therefore, the last thing football needs is Europe and South America inviting one another to join their tournaments, ignoring the other regions and effectively pulling up the drawbridge.

Other confederations are already concerned that the UEFA Nations League, for example, means the top European sides are less likely to play friendlies against sides from other continents and progress has become difficult. The participation of South American teams in that competition would effectively make it a Super League and have many of the negative effects of that concept.

Ultimately, the only comparisons we need between European and South American sides come every four years at the World Cup, and also in the Finalissima. Experimentation shouldn’t be discouraged for the sake of it.

The two dominant confederations have no particular responsibility to help others grow, but UEFA and CONMEBOL reaching out to nations from other continents would be better for world football.

(Top photo: The 2022 World Cup final was CONMEBOL’s Argentina against UEFA’s France; by Mohammad Karamali/Defodi Images via Getty Images)

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