By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Jul 8, 2021) US Soccer Players – For many soccer watchers, the word ‘tournament’ conveys a certain thrill and sense of wonder. Major ones like the World Cup and the various continental championships provide signposts that mark our lives across the decades. They can inspire, immortalize, and remind us of certain periods, places, players, and moments. Host communities open their doors and share their culture as well as their venues.
Some events leave powerful legacies like USA 1994, the foundation upon which our country’s contemporary soccer landscape was built. Others present something more complex. By both chance and choice, the executives who oversee the top echelons of the professional game have lately been testing the established parameters.
On Saturday, Brazil and Argentina will meet at Rio de Janeiro’s Maracana to contest the Copa America final. It’s something that South America’s top international competition is happening at all, given the last-minute relocation of the tournament. Defending champs Brazil stepped in to welcome their second straight edition of the tourney on a few days’ notice. They have again enjoyed the proverbial home cooking, albeit without fans in the stands this time around.
It’s not as if the five-time world champs need much of a competitive advantage. Still, they seem to be thriving, racking up the biggest goal differential (+10) in the group stage and two clean-sheet wins in the knockout rounds so far.
On Sunday, England and Italy will face off for the European Championship trophy at Wembley Stadium in London. It will mark the Three Lions’ sixth home match out of seven in this tournament. UEFA chose to turn hosting EURO 2020 into a multinational event nearly a decade ago.
Promising “to give nations the opportunity to host the tournament who might not have otherwise had the chance” in a commemoration of the Euros’ 60th anniversary, the confederation initially selected 13 venues across a huge swath of Europe from Dublin to Baku. Pandemic concerns later reduced that number to 11/ A key stated rationale was that this edition, the first to feature an expanded field of 24 teams from the previous 16, could impose excessive financial and logistical demands on the usual norm of one or two hosting nations.
Then-UEFA president Michel Platini called it “romantic,” a way to spread the love to smaller member countries. As usual, however, the established powers came out ahead in the end. England, Italy, and fellow semifinalists Spain and Denmark all played their entire group stage schedules on home turf. Overall, home teams compiled a record of 13-6-5 in the group phase, and 2-0 in knockout rounds, which England could add to in the final.
It’s probably no coincidence that this also seems to have benefited UEFA’s bottom line. Not only has the organization prioritized large-capacity venues in large cities, it’s also insisted on those venues allowing at least a percentage of their full capacity of spectators to attend. It went so far as to revoke Dublin’s matches and parcel them out to London and St Petersburg when Irish authorities could not make guarantees to that effect. Wembley is in the spotlight not just because of its city’s centrality but its size, these Euros’ largest facility, and income potential. So much for that romantic offering to the non-elites.
Those of us on this side of the Atlantic don’t have to look far for comparisons. The 2026 World Cup headed to these shores holds ample potential to be just as massive and messy as these Euros. By design, the Concacaf Gold Cup happens in the United States though the confederation is working on that. That’s also a reflection of this region’s drastically different context. How far can sanctioning bodies reasonably go with any attempts to compensate for such hard-wired differences?
So much of this revolves around that fundamental question. World soccer constantly faces us with imbalances in size, resources, and history. They give us the Cinderellas and Goliaths that we enjoy loving and hating, even if many of us would prefer to close the biggest of those gaps between haves and have-nots. Major League Soccer, for instance, has turned out to be a quarter-century-long experiment in cultivating the universal competitiveness that is so often lacking in older settings. Yet that distinguishing feature seems to leave some of us cold, its often-convoluted rules inspiring both admiration and objection.
Should they win this weekend, England and Brazil will hoist their hardware just as high and with just as much joy regardless of the perceptions of unfair advantage. That’s their right, and we’re all well aware of circumstances beyond organizers’ control. Still, if the big takeaway from this summer of soccer is that the concept of big decentralized tournaments (Europe) with unweildy group stages (South America) isn’t the best way forward, what would we really lose?
More from Charles Boehm:
- Five questions about the USMNT’s 2021 Gold Cup campaign
- MLS in the lower divisions
- The Concacaf Octagonal adds two interesting teams
- Taking stock of the USMNT’s tactical identity after Concacaf Nations League
Logo courtesy of UEFA