Will the Addition of European and Asian Teams Dilute the Spirit of the Copa America?

Lead Photo: Photo is licensed under the CC BY 2.0 license.
Photo is licensed under the CC BY 2.0 license.
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One of the long-standing quirks of the Copa America is that it features 12 teams, but there are only 10 nations in CONMEBOL, the South American soccer confederation that holds the tournament every 4 years (give or take a Centenario edition). While the South American countries usually dominate–no team outside of the continent has ever won the tournament, and only Mexico has even made it to the final–there have always been two invitees from other confederations to round out the field.

Usually, they come from neighboring CONCACAF, but the 1999 invitation of Japan apparently sent a strong precedent for outliers to be brought into the fold, and that’s a precedent that’s about to get even bigger. With the announced expansion to 16 teams in the next edition of the Copa America in 2019, there are 4 new slots to fill on top of the usual “Mexico and the United States” pair.

Of course, CONMEBOL could choose to fill the new spaces with other CONCACAF nations: Costa Rica is particularly strong right now, while countries like Panama, Honduras, and even Trinidad and Tobago all made the Hex round of World Cup qualifying. But reports came out of FIFA’s Congress this week that CONMEBOL will invite the US, Mexico, two European nations–Portugal and Spain–and two Asian nations–Japan and China–to the Copa America, turning it from a continental-and-friends showdown into, essentially, a mini-World Cup.

On paper, these aren’t, as a whole, the most egregious additions: despite their contentious status as colonizers, Portugal and Spain have cultural and linguistic links to South America, while Japan can claim strong presences in both Brazil and Peru. Peruvians of Chinese descent clock in at around 4% of the Andean country’s population, so that could help explain the Asian power’s inclusion. But what of the “spirit” of the Copa America–which has traditionally seen smaller, less talented clubs give the powerhouses trouble? Diluting the participant base with countries not even on the same side of the world might ruin what makes the Copa such a messy and entertaining summer spectacle.

That’s without even taking into account the fact that Portugal and Spain might not even bother sending their best to the tournament; Portugal will be in their 4th straight summer of international play–following their victory at the 2016 Euro Championship, the 2017 Confederations Cup, and the 2018 World Cup–while both countries will likely have their eyes turned towards the 2020 Euro Championships. Japan and China might be more inclined to have good showings, especially the latter, as there has been an influx of South American talent in the Chinese first division.

This comes back to the hunt for money that has led to expansions in the Euros and, perhaps more disappointingly, the World Cup. Simply put, by expanding to more countries and more markets, FIFA, UEFA, and CONMEBOL are all looking to increase their revenue, possibly at the risk of lowering the quality of play at each of these tournaments. The 2016 Euro featured a winner in Portugal that didn’t thrive so much as survive the expanded 24-team field, while fans are already dreading the 48-slot behemoth that will be the 2026 World Cup.

Sure, the final rounds of those tournaments, and of the 2019 Copa America, should provide the drama everyone wants from international tournaments. With so many games and so many countries that don’t have strong connections to the region, will the Copa Americeuropasia be looked upon as fondly as, say, the 2015 Copa America? That remains to be seen, but it appears to be a risk CONMEBOL is gladly taking.

There is one potential plus side to the expansion, however: it would admittedly be pretty funny if Cristiano Ronaldo wins a Copa before Lionel Messi does.