Concacaf in transition: developing the strengths concept

By Paul Kennedy

The news out of the United Arab Emirates was good for Concacaf. Mexico and Honduras reached the quarterfinals of the Under-17 World Cup, and Mexico, a winner in a 12-round shootout over Brazil, moved into the semifinals.

Mexico was no surprise. After all, it's already won the U-17 title in 2005 and 2011. But Honduras had gone pointless in its two previous appearances in the world championship.

Mexico and Honduras form two of the three faces of Concacaf. On the one hand, you have countries like Mexico and the United States that have hosted three World Cups in the last 50 years and both have pro leagues that rank among the top 10 leagues in the world in average attendance. Only Europe has hosted more World Cups or boasts more leagues in the top 10 in attendance than Concacaf. Then, you have Central America, where in the majority of countries, like Honduras, soccer is hugely popular.

But the vast majority of Concacaf's members are from the Caribbean, many of them small islands, like the Cayman Islands, site of the 2013 Concacaf Sports Summit, with a population of 53,000, Turks & Caicos Islands (population: 32,000) and Montserrat (6,000). Cricket is the No. 1 sport throughout much of the Caribbean.

They all combine to make Concacaf one of the most diverse confederations within FIFA, ranging from some of the biggest soccer-playing nations in the world and to some of the smallest, as well as what FIFA president Sepp Blatter likes to call "a melange of cultures and races."
"You have the richest," he says, "the so-called richest -- I put a question mark when the richest cannot open its national parks -- and you have Montserrat."

Concacaf has 41 members -- Bonaire, a Dutch island, joined in April -- of which 35 are FIFA members, 12 admitted in the last quarter century. With 35 members, Concacaf -- specifically, its former president, Jack Warner -- used its size to wield considerable political power with FIFA, usually in support of Blatter and his agenda.

But Concacaf, best known as the organizer of the Gold Cup, has always suffered from an image problem, and the confederation was badly tarnished by scandals that resulted in the forced resignations of Warner and general secretary, Chuck Blazer, sanctions against dozens of soccer officials from the Caribbean, an IRS probe and legal and accounting bills extending into the millions of dollars.

Against that backdrop, a new Concacaf administration was installed and its offices moved from New York, where Blazer rented space in the Trump Tower, to Miami, a hub for quick flights to the Caribbean and Central America. The first task of President Jeffrey Webb and general secretary Enrique Sanz was to rehabilitate its image. Its Integrity Committee Report released late last year exposed many of the business practices of Warner and Blazer -- both former FIFA executive committee members -- that ranged from fraud by Warner to breach of fiduciary duty by Blazer. Just how much they made is unknown, but it is safe to say each made millions of dollars during their two decades in charge of Concacaf.

The Integrity Committee Report is considered a model of transparency for a sport that suffers from its secrecy, but it is only the beginning for Concacaf. Webb says the organization will fail if its members don't hold its leaders accountable. And he emphasizes how they need to reach out to their local governments and demand improved infrastructure for soccer. He doesn't come right out and say it, but the uptake of his message is that Concacaf's members have to do more to take care of themselves so they are not dependent on development grants from FIFA or Concacaf -- handouts if you will -- that generally come with political IOUs and fostered the poisoned political environment of international soccer.

Much of the work being done is not the kind that will grab headlines. Sanz says the executive committee has already met five or six times this season and plans on meeting two more times before the end of the year. Concacaf continues to welcome new staff -- all but a few specialists have left -- as it has transited from New York to Miami. "We have a very good team," says Sanz. "We've added very good members, and getting them to work together has been a pleasure." The first Gold Cup of the new administration is out of the way -- Webb says it was the most profitable in history -- but work has begun on the 2015 tournament. (A two-year cycle for the Gold Cup doesn't leave much downtime.)

But much of the ongoing work of Concacaf is to assess the state of its membership and ascertain its needs. "They want coaching courses, grassroots events, obviously things they need to grow the game, uniforms, balls," says Saenz. "There's huge interest in the region to develop coaching, referee, administration and marketing courses. We are working hand in hand with FIFA to develop the right programs for the region."

A Concacaf under-15 championship -- reserved for smaller Concacaf nations -- might not seem like a big deal, but it is huge for those federations without an ongoing national team program. A boys event was held this summer in Cayman, and Concacaf will alternate boys and girls events each year. The goal is to kickstart national team programs to get players prepared for international competition, starting at the under-17 level -- the same level where Mexico and Honduras excelled in the UAE.

But it isn't a one-program-fits-all concept. Concacaf wants to work with members to exploit their strengths wherever they may lie. That might be futsal or beach soccer. The goal is make members more competitive at all levels.

The theme of the 2013 Concacaf Sports Summit, held in Cayman, was "Transformation Through Partnership," and it attracted prime ministers and sports ministers from across the region as well as federation executives. Speakers included Blatter, FIFA secretary general Jerome Valcke, Hassan al-Thawadi, secretary general of the Qatar 2022 organizing committee, and MLS commissioner Don Garber.

Here are some takeaways from the conference:

FIFA loves the U.S. market. One cannot emphasize enough how important the United States and its soccer market is to FIFA. Valcke came right out and said he definitely supports the 2026 World Cup coming to the United States. Valcke won't be the one to decide who'll get the 2026 World Cup, but such a  public stance is unusual.

Valcke -- the commercial head of FIFA -- said the power of soccer was to provide live content to media companies. And nowhere is live content valued more than in the United States, where rights fees have gone through the roof. A generation ago, FIFA couldn't give away the English-language rights in the United States, but now it's FIFA's most valuable market when you combine English- and Spanish-language rights.

That makes the displeasure of the 2018/22 World Cup broadcasters Fox and Telemundo such a huge problem for FIFA as it deals with the question of moving Qatar 2022 from the summer to winter.

Canada 2015 will be big. Canadian Soccer Association President Victor Montagliani updated attendees on plans for the 2015 Women's World Cup in Canada -- and the 2014 Under-20 Women's World Cup that will serve as a dress rehearsal of sorts.

The 2015 Women's World Cup, the first FIFA women's tournament with 24 teams, will be the first coast-to-coast event Canada has ever held -- across all five time zones, including Moncton, in New Brunswick, which is on Atlantic time zone.

Montagliani said he was "astonished" with the results of a CSA survey that 92 percent of all Canadians were aware of the tournament, and 1.5 million tickets were expected to be sold for the event. (The landmark 1999 Women's World Cup that took the USA by storm attracted only 1.2 million fans for what was albeit a smaller tournament.)

FIFA takes its social programs seriously. One of the most creative is its "11 for Health" program, a global health initiative that runs 11 weeks and targets 11-years-old. It uses international stars to teach children about good health practices, and the program is designed for easy implementation in schools.

FIFA Chief Medical Officer Dr. Jiri Dvorak said the program has made great strides in Mexico, which is suffering from an epidemic of childhood obesity and diabetes. FIFA hopes to reach every 11-year-old Mexican in the school year 2016-17 -- 1.8 million children in total.

A Caribbean pro league? Easier said than done. Only three Caribbean teams -- Haiti in 1974, Jamaica in 1998 and Trinidad & Tobago in 2006 -- have qualified for the World Cup in the last 40 years. Only one Caribbean team advanced to the final round of qualifying for the 2014 World Cup, and Jamaica's Reggae Boyz finished dead last without a win in 10 games in the Hexagonal.

Webb insisted that a pro league in the Caribbean will help elevate the standards in the region. A model is the Caribbean Premier League, a six-team Twenty20 cricket pro league that was successfully launched in 2013. Concacaf is forming an exploratory committee for the Caribbean league project and looking for government support. Speaking at the Summit, Garber cautioned that the key was "access to capital" and finding owners with the deep pockets and a shared vision to keep a league going.

Blatter's legacy is South Africa. Blatter gets a lot of heat, rightly so, as the overseer of a corrupted game, but his lasting achievement will be that he brought the World Cup to South Africa. However you measure the legacy of 2010 World Cup, it was a hugely important event for South Africa that continues to shape the nation.

Tokyo Sexwale, a leading South African politician, who spent years in Robben Island prison alongside former President Nelson Mandela for his opposition to apartheid rule, spoke at the gala dinner on the eve of the Summit. How important was Blatter, who supported South Africa in its 2006 World Cup  bid it controversially lost to Germany and again in its close win over Morocco for the 2010 World Cup? "You now know tough it was for South Africa to get the World Cup? It took three Nobel Peace Prize winners [Bishop Desmond Tutu, former President F.W. de Klerk and Mandela] to go see the short man," joked Sexwale.

(Sexwale was in the news after leaving the Cayman Islands. He was wrongfully detained at Kennedy Airport in New York because his name was on a terrorist watchlist dating back to the anti-apartheid movement -- a watchlist on which Mandela remained until 2008.)

You'll be hearing a lot from Webb. At the same gala dinner, the 77-year-old Blatter let slip he viewed Webb as a possible successor to him when he steps down. When that is remains anyone's guess. In any event, Webb has enough on his plate at Concacaf to keep him from running for FIFA president any time soon, but he'll definitely be heard from.

As head of the FIFA anti-discrimination task force, Webb was in the news last weekend, meeting with Ivory Coast star Yaya Toure in the aftermath of Toure's complaint he was the target of racist chants by CSKA Moscow fans during Manchester City's Champions League game in Moscow. Webb also called for the English Premier League to do more to hire minority coaches, just like U.S. pro leagues have done.

Horton, the speaker, speaks. The job of the afternoon's opening speaker at the Summit went to a true speaker: Randy Horton is the speaker of Bermuda's House of Assembly. Yes, that Randy Horton, of New York Cosmos fame.

He spoke of his career in soccer -- and cricket -- and as a teacher, of his college days in the 1960s in England, where he watched Albert Johanneson, the pioneering black winger at Leeds United, of his motto as a school principal. "I am a firm believer in the strengths concept," he said. "Let's work with strengths that people have."

Horton remembered every detail of the Cosmos' first game and their first goal. April 17, 1971. Busch Stadium in St. Louis. A free kick 30 yards out on the right side. The ball flighted into the area by Greek Kyriakos Fitilis. The goal scored by Horton, the first of 43 in four seasons with the Cosmos.

"The center back had no chance against me in the air," boasted the 6-foot-2 Horton, who stood out with his huge Afro and full beard.

The strengths concept, remember.
1 comment about "Concacaf in transition: developing the strengths concept".
  1. Kyr-Roger St.-Denis, November 3, 2013 at 11:35 a.m.

    It's a good thing FIFA makes so much money from TV rights, because actually attending a World Cup in a big country like Canada is a drag. Fans want to follow their national teams, but when matches in the group stages require each team to travel up to 3000 miles between matches, it means the fans, who don't have chartered jets, can't go along. Even in a relatively compact country like Germany, it was all we could do to see two of the USA's 3 group matches. The idea of following our team across Canada in two years seems hopeless. Maybe FIFA, and the tournament's organizers, will consider the fans' interest, and go back to the former practice of having each group play all its group-stage matches in a single city.

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