It sounded perfect at the time. On May 1, 2014, at a swank hotel in Miami Beach, Florida, Jeffrey Webb and Eugenio Figueredo sat together onstage and announced the 2016 Copa América Centenario—a first-of-its-kind tournament that would take place in the U.S. and feature 16 national teams, including all the top South American teams, the U.S. and Mexico.
Webb, then the president of CONCACAF, smiled at Figueredo, then the president of CONMEBOL, and proclaimed: “The 2016 Copa América will be the biggest international sporting event that the U.S. has hosted since the 2002 Winter Olympics and the biggest football event since the 1994 World Cup.”
And who could argue with the idea? For years, soccer people in this part of the world had dreamed of a tournament for the Americas that would have a similar stature to the European Championship. It also seemed like a no-brainer for the U.S. national team, which suffers from not having enough quality competitive games and tournaments that take place between World Cups. (The Gold Cup, sadly, doesn’t count.)
What’s more, the FIFA Executive Committee had (somewhat surprisingly) given its blessing to the special Copa América Centenario—commemorating the 100th year of CONMEBOL—by putting it on the official FIFA calendar.
That meant clubs had to release their best players (like Lionel Messi, Neymar, Luis Suárez, James Rodríguez and Arturo Vidal) for the tournament.
Full stadiums all over the U.S. for a mini-World Cup? What could go wrong? Well, a lot. Which is why, with a little more than eight months to go until the scheduled start of the Copa América Centenario, there remains only a glimmer of hope that the tournament will still take place.
What happened? May 27, 2015 happened. On that day, Swiss police raided the five-star Baur au Lac Hotel in Zurich, where soccer executives from all over the world had gathered for the FIFA Congress and FIFA presidential election.
Among the 14 soccer and marketing officials named in the U.S. Department of Justice’s 47-count indictment were Webb and Figueredo, who had been the faces of the 2014 Copa América Centenario press conference. Three others who were indicted: Argentines Alejandro Burzaco and Hugo and Mariano Jinkis, whose group Datisa had the marketing rights for the Copa América Centenario (as well as the Copa América tournaments in 2015, ’19 and ’23).
The accusation in the U.S. indictment is breathtaking: “In connection with the acquisition of the media rights to the Copa América and Centenario tournaments from CONMEBOL and CONCACAF, Datisa agreed to pay $110 million in bribes to the defendants Jeffrey Webb, Eugenio Figueredo, Rafael Esquivel [a Venezuelan CONMEBOL exec], José Maria Marin [the former Brazilian federation president] and Nicolas Leóz [the former CONMEBOL president], and several other soccer officials. Datisa agreed to make these payments at various times over the life of the contracts. At least $40 million has been paid to date.”
Not surprisingly, the Copa América Centenario has been thrown into doubt ever since. Jeffrey Webb (who has pleaded not guilty) was extradited from Switzerland to the U.S. and is under house arrest at his home near Atlanta. Figueredo (who has not issued a plea) was cleared this week for extradition from Switzerland to the U.S. And the investigation continues: U.S. attorney general Loretta Lynch reiterated on Monday that more arrests are planned of individuals and entities.
Against this backdrop, it’s worth pointing out that Datisa, the group composed of Traffic Sports, Torneos y Competencias and Fair Play, still owns the marketing rights to the Copa América Centenario even though it has been accused of agreeing to pay $110 million in bribes. (Datisa, which had its bank accounts frozen, had trouble paying prize money to teams at this past summer’s Copa América)
A U.S. Soccer source says Datisa’s continued involvement remains the biggest stumbling block to U.S. Soccer agreeing to go ahead and host the tournament. Over the summer, U.S. Soccer gave a list of conditions that CONMEBOL had to agree to in order for U.S. Soccer to be willing to host the tournament. Those conditions haven’t been laid out in detail publicly. Sources in U.S. Soccer say CONMEBOL agreed to some of the conditions but has yet to agree to all of them.
For its part, CONMEBOL is trying to put public pressure on U.S. Soccer by announcing that the tournament will go ahead as scheduled next summer in the U.S.—but that’s not CONMEBOL’s decision to make on its own. The tournament can’t take place in the U.S. unless U.S. Soccer agrees to it.
A number of involved parties–but not U.S. Soccer–met Thursday in Mexico City to discuss the future of the event. CONCACAF released the following statement:
"Today in Mexico City, CONCACAF had a very productive meeting with CONMEBOL and our broadcast partners, Univision and Televisa, regarding the Copa America Centenario. While all parties recognize that there are still issues that must be resolved, we are all in alignment regarding the next steps to be taken as well as the aggressive timeline towards realizing our common goal of staging the Copa America Centenario in the United States. We remain committed to working with all parties to resolve outstanding issues and operational components of the tournament.”
What might put U.S. Soccer in a better frame of mind to host the Copa América Centenario? Perhaps something like what happened in early July, when CONCACAF announced that it had reached a “mutual decision” to dissolve its long-term marketing rights agreement with Traffic Sports USA, which was named in the U.S. indictment.
For now, though, U.S. Soccer sources sound pessimistic that they’ll get what they need from CONMEBOL and Datisa to agree to host the tournament next summer. And an event that seemed perfect will likely end up being viewed as a gigantic missed opportunity.