“In Latin America the border between soccer and politics is vague.” Ryszard Kapuscinski
The football in the CONCACAF Champions League is like Central American food, low quality but lots of it. In comparison to Europe or South America, CONCACAF is definitely a poor relation. So why am I writing about it, and more importantly why should you read about it?
The food analogy in the first sentence is important, as in some ways the poor quality of football can be explained by the quality of the food. In “Soccernomics” Simon Kuper and Stefan Syzmanski discuss nutrition in different countries having an effect on physical development and footballing ability. The most successful football nations, with the obvious statistical aberration of Brazil, are wealthy, developed nations. In underdeveloped nations food is often scarce and of poor quality. This has an effect on the physical condition and growth of the people. It is no coincidence that tall, well-fed nations produce good athletes. The very best players in world football tend to come from poor neighbourhoods in rich countries, this is more conducive to a good physical condition than being poor in a poor country. CONCACAF pits poor countries against rich ones and more often than not the poor ones win, for the time being at least.
Kuper and Syzmanski state that important factors in a nation’s footballing success are the population size, the resources and the experience. What the Central Americans lack in population and resources they make up for in experience. The authors highlight the US as one of the potential next footballing superpowers. The US already has the first two attributes and is gaining the experience to be able to challenge the European/South American dominance. If this is to happen the MLS and the international tournaments that the US teams play in need to improve in depth, quality and competitiveness.
Viewed as a microcosm of globalisation and development the CONCACAF Champions League is fascinating. One theory of foreign direct investment (FDI) is that the countries receiving the investment benefit from outside influence. The introduction of foreign methods, business practice and workers increases efficiency and stimulates local production. Rather like the introduction of foreigners to the English Premier League, moves to the MLS by players such as Thierry Henry, Rafa Marquez and you-know-who will help to spread important footballing knowledge from traditional power centres to the US. The experiences of World Cups and Confederations Cups, plus time spent playing abroad will help the US players to improve further. This talent needs somewhere to develop though and a strong MLS is vital for the US to be able to compete.
Looked at from a nationalist viewpoint, and one that seems to match with many complaining about the situation in England, is that foreign investment actually stifles growth. If a market is controlled by large foreign firms the domestic firms are unable to grow or develop in the first place. Or looked at from a footballing point of view, the introduction of foreign players has the effect of preventing domestic players from making the breakthrough. What is probably more accurate is some mixture of the two theories, if a country has the necessary size and power it will benefit from FDI but if it is small and weaker it will always struggle to develop. This adds further weight to the theory that the US is destined to become a footballing powerhouse while the Latin American teams aren’t.
Currently, however the situation is different, the CONCACAF Champions League is dominated by Mexican teams. Mexico is a large, populous and relatively developed country, and of course it has a rich footballing tradition. In the 2009-10 season all the semi-finalists where from Mexico, in 2008-09 three of the semi-finalists were. In total Mexican teams have won the title 27 times, more than every other nation put together. Eleven different teams from Mexico have won the title showing the strength in depth. When the MLS teams have accumulated necessary experience expect them to dominate against their poorer neighbours.
Competing alongside these two nations is the rest of Central America and the Caribbean. Costa Rica are second most successful nation in the Champions League. As the most developed Central American nation (excluding Mexico) Costa Rica have won the trophy on six occasions. Panama run Costa Rica close in the UN Human Development Index but baseball is far more important than football in that nations affections. Deportivo Saprissa from San Jose, Costa Rica are the only non-Mexican CONCACAF team to have competed in the Club World Cup. The theories seem to suggest that small countries like Costa Rica will not be able to compete with the larger ones in the future.
Another significant factor is the high number of players from Latin America who play for MLS teams. Of the teams in the Group Stage this year Real Salt Lake and Seattle Sounders have eight each and Columbus Crew five. Again looked at from a globalisation and development point of view this can be viewed as a drain of resources from the poor countries to the rich, or the periphery to the core. As Eduardo Galeano wrote in The Open Veins of Latin America, “Our defeat was always implicit in the victory of others; our wealth has generated our poverty by nourishing the prosperity of others”. The transfer of Javier Hernandez from Chivas to Manchester United shows the quality of players in this league but can also be seen as an example of the drain of resources from the Third World to the rich world. However as mentioned above the CL is dominated by Mexico and Costa Rica, so by paying attention to this tournament now we can see the poor nations beat the rich ones. We can see Central American talent playing for Central American teams and doing well. This situation may not last for long. The only advantage the Latin Americans have now is their extra experience.
Finance and lack of development have more obvious effects within CONCACAF, The best teams from poor nations often don’t get to play in the tournament, despite qualifying on merit, if their stadiums do not meet the required standards of safety. This season Belize lost their one qualifying spot and Real Estelí of Nicaragua were disqualified for the same reason.
This tournament in this part of the world is low on quality football for some of the reasons mentioned above. What it lacks in quality though it makes up for in passion, commitment, great players and interesting stories.