CHESTER, Pa.—For the first 10 days of this CONCACAF Gold Cup, the day-to-day tournament organizers appeared to be pulling off an impressive feat: Even though the crooked men in charge of CONCACAF were either in jail or fired in disgrace, even though the soccer region’s governance was in shambles, the biannual tournament was actually coming off O.K.
The games were happening. The stadiums were mostly full. And the stench that surrounds the name CONCACAF was, if not removed, then at least mitigated by the presence of the national teams and players, who have no choice over their misfortune to be associated with the dirtiest confederation in world soccer over the last two decades.
See, that’s the thing with FIFA and CONCACAF. The game itself—this great sport and its talented players—almost always transcends the despicable behavior of those who run the show. What’s more, there are good people at FIFA and CONCACAF who work hard every day to make sure events like the Women’s World Cup and the Gold Cup run smoothly. From a financial perspective, at least, both big summer events will end up doing well.
But in the past week, as this Gold Cup has gone off the rails, we have now seen how the scandal engulfing FIFA and CONCACAF can turn a soccer tournament into a disaster as well.
Last Sunday the nosedive began when regional heavyweight Mexico was given a 121st-minute penalty to beat Costa Rica—a penalty that was outrageous for three reasons: 1) It wasn’t close to being a penalty, 2) There was no reason to have had that much added time, and 3) the fouled player, Oribe Peralta, should have been sent off minutes earlier for his own red card-worthy foul.
Then on Wednesday night in Atlanta, the Mexico-Panama Gold Cup semifinal turned into the ugliest game I have ever seen on U.S. soil since I started covering the sport in 1996. U.S. referee Mark Geiger sent off Panama’s Luis Tejada in the first half for a high elbow that should have drawn no more than a yellow card. When 10-man Panama scored to take the lead, Mexican-American fans rained projectiles down onto the celebrating Panamanian players (just as they had thrown garbage at Trinidad & Tobago players at an earlier game in Charlotte).
With Mexico on the brink of elimination, Geiger whistled a phantom penalty in Mexico’s favor in the 89th minute and called for another spot kick (this one legit) in extra time. When the final whistle blew on Mexico’s win, a horde of Panamanian players rushed at Geiger while stadium security officials were inexplicably slow or unable to react (just as they had been with the unruly fans that night).
After the game, the Panamanian players posed for a team picture with a banner reading (translated): CONCACAF THIEVES. CORRUPT!
Let me be clear: No referee, including one that has had a brutally bad game, should ever feel in danger for his safety. And while I can’t say anything with 100% certainty in today’s world of FIFA and CONCACAF, just because a referee makes some huge mistakes doesn’t mean that he’s being paid off or part of a conspiracy.
Yet that’s exactly what the Panamanian soccer federation president alleged at a press conference on Friday: That the fix was in.
“We perceive that this match was manipulated, and not by the Mexican federation, but there are interested third parties,” said Panama FA president Pedro Chaluja. “The bad refereeing decisions were deliberate and with the intention of protecting the third parties. These events can only be decrypted if FIFA and CONCACAF join together to carry out a thorough investigation into the development that referee Mark Geiger was so unfavorable and ended up robbing the victory and the dreams of all Panamanians.”
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CONCACAF issued a press release saying it had received official protests from the Panama and Costa Rica federations and that it “takes these claims extremely seriously and will look into them immediately.”
But two of CONCACAF’s biggest problems are simple: 1) Its track record in clean governance is horrible, and 2) It has a complete leadership vacuum right now.
Why is the Panamanian team holding up a banner that says CONCACAF THIEVES? Well, maybe it’s because Jeffrey Webb, who was the CONCACAF president until late May, has been indicted by the U.S. Department of Justice for pocketing millions of dollars in a widespread corruption scheme? (Webb has pleaded not guilty.) Or maybe it’s because former CONCACAF president Jack Warner has been indicted for doing the same things?
Or maybe it’s because former CONCACAF general secretary Chuck Blazer has already pleaded guilty to similar charges of racketeering, wire fraud and corruption conspiracies?
We know that match-fixing has taken place in previous Gold Cups, so you can understand why there would be widespread suspicion this time around.
What’s remarkable is that none of CONCACAF’s new leadership has stepped forward in the last few days to, you know, lead publicly. The interim president of CONCACAF is a Honduran named Alfredo Hawit. He hasn’t said anything publicly yet. The CONCACAF Executive Committee has eight members. Only one of them has organized a press conference here to address the miasma of Wednesday night—and that was the guy (Chaluja) who said the game was fixed!
One of the CONCACAF executive committee members, U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati, has been willing to speak to the media just twice since the big arrest day of FIFA officials on May 27: Once a couple days later to explain how he was voting in the FIFA presidential election, and once immediately after the U.S. won the Women’s World Cup, knowing the questions would be about that and not about the FIFA and CONCACAF scandal. Other than that, he has shut down any and all interview requests, including one from a U.S. Senate subcommittee on the FIFA scandal.
Is it any wonder that this Gold Cup feels like it’s adrift?
It’s also important to note that just because the Gold Cup makes money doesn’t mean that it’s “successful.” The pursuit of lucre has caused all sorts of bad choices to be made that compromise integrity, to wit:
• The Gold Cup takes place every two years, instead of every four, as should be the case.
• Gold Cup games are often played on awful temporary grass fields that hurt the quality of the game, all so more tickets can be sold in bigger stadiums.
• There is never a random draw to fill out the groups and brackets. Why? Well, the bracket is engineered—some would say rigged—to give the best chance of producing a U.S.-Mexico final (which means more tickets sold and higher TV ratings).
• The tournament has too many venues—14 stadiums for 12 teams! That helps make sure the money comes in, but as a result the travel for teams is insane.
• The Gold Cup takes place in the U.S. every time. That may produce the most revenues, but it’s time we saw a Gold Cup held entirely in Canada or Mexico or perhaps a tournament shared by, say, Costa Rica and Panama (two excellent tourist destinations, by the way).
Then there’s the issue of punishing fans for throwing projectiles and garbage at opposing teams. We saw it with fans of the Mexican team not just in Charlotte but in Atlanta. I can understand why it’s hard to punish the Mexican team and federation for fan behavior at games they aren’t hosting.
But how often have we seen Mexican fans throw things at opposing teams (including the U.S.) at CONCACAF games in the Estadio Azteca? Quite a bit. And how often have punishments come for that? Not often. That would set a tone extending to the Gold Cup that such behavior won’t be tolerated. Nor does it help that the security CONCACAF hires for the Gold Cup is woefully understaffed underprepared and underperforming.
As for the bad refereeing calls this week, the unsexy solutions are to improve referee training and support the idea of limited video review of game-changing calls. The introduction of goal-line technology has helped world soccer. So would video review as long as it’s done in a similarly thought-out way.
For now, though, we’re left with a Gold Cup whose vibe matches the one that has engulfed CONCACAF ever since the arrests of FIFA and CONCACAF officials on May 27. Earlier this week, U.S. captain Michael Bradley said the Gold Cup was endearingly ridiculous for many of the reasons listed above.
But the truth is that it’s no endearing anymore. It’s embarrassing.