By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Aug 28, 2015) US Soccer Players – On May 27, United States Attorney General Loretta Lynch, named to her post 19 days before, announced a stunning blow against corruption in soccer’s world governing body. A long time in coming, the 164-page indictment Lynch dropped that day revealed for an unsurprised world a litany of malfeasance and outright corruption undertaken by soccer officials across several decades.
We may not have realized it at the time, but that was also the day that a 2016 Copa America in the United States moved from highly anticipated celebration of soccer’s dramatic rise in the United States to unlikely to ever happen.
CONMEBOL celebrating its centennial certainly makes sense. Holding that tournament in the United States and inviting several CONCACAF teams was certainly a surprise. It’s been a long time since the United States hosted a men’s soccer tournament this high profile. Comparing a one-off edition of the Copa America to the World Cup might be a stretch, but it certainly takes second place to any tournament on the American schedule since 1994.
It’s a different market in the United States for soccer now. This soccer nation has no problem filling stadiums for meaningless matches between name teams, because although soccer remains a cultural outsider in many ways, the progress made in turning it into a popular spectator sport is undeniable.
There’s really no telling just how big a tournament like the Copa America Centenario could be as a cultural touchstone in the lives of the rising generation of American soccer fans. Those around in 1994 remember the World Cup as the beginning of soccer’s ascendance, slow as it might be, into a legitimate part of the American sports landscape. There’s a lot more soccer fans in the USA now, including an entire wave of young sports fans who don’t hold any of the old biases against the game.
In the wake of the Department of Justice arrest warrants, we now know that meant something different to some of the organizers. According to the Department of Justice allegations, some of them saw the Copa America Centenario as a way to enrich themselves.
Job well done by the Department of Justice for taking the lead on soccer corruption. At the same time, those arrests will almost certainly lead to the centennial version of the Copa America happening somewhere else.
Included in the FBI’s investigation and the Department of Justice’s list of indictments were figures prominent in the genesis of the idea to hold the centennial edition of the Copa America in the United States. There’s a very good chance that those figures conceived of the idea to hold a Copa America in the United States simply to make money off the back of things like television and marketing rights. The Department of Justice’s report identified $150 million worth of bribes and kickbacks spread around as part of the Copa America 2016 planning.
The president of CONMEBOL, Paraguayan Juan Angel Napout, is the latest South American soccer executive to suggest that the notion of a US-hosted Copa America is dead. In an interview with a Paraguayan radio station, Napout confirmed that a centennial Copa America would happen, but went on to say it was unclear at this point if it would take place in the United States.
“The 100th anniversary will have a celebration and this will be on the field. We want to have a Copa Centenario, it’s on the FIFA calendar and the idea is for it to be played,” Napout said. “Whether it will be in the United States? We have to wait for some things to happen, review some things.”
There are practical reasons for that, as painful as they might be. It’s all the more difficult to swallow because the explosion of anti-American sentiment among soccer’s power brokers is impossible to ignore.
Sepp Blatter is painting the FBI-led investigation and DOJ indictments as sour grapes over the American failure to secure the 2022 World Cup bid. Several men who can only be called “cronies” of the FIFA president have done the same. Though it’s probably posturing, the rhetoric has a very real world impact on feelings toward America, American soccer, and the US Soccer Federation. It’s not a witch hunt if there is verifiable corruption for which these men can be brought up on charges, but that almost doesn’t matter in the global game of soccer politics that rages on unabated.
US Soccer is considering entering the bidding for the 2026 World Cup. In the current environment, their chances of winning sit somewhere between slim and none. If the 2016 Copa America doesn’t happen in the United States, it might be another generation before a big, meaningful multi-continental tournament comes to these shores.
There’s really nothing US Soccer can do but wait. They weren’t the architects of the Copa America. They were invited to host and to play. There’s also really nothing US Soccer can do it international opinion has turned against the idea of the United States as the host of another major tournament.
It’s a shame, and yet it’s not. If the price for the takedown of FIFA crooks is time in the global soccer wilderness, so be it. Meaningful reform had to happen and it needed a soccer nation to take the lead.
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