With a September resumption of international soccer now “in peril,” according to Concacaf president and FIFA VP Victor Montagliani, the prospect of reshaping the region’s 2022 World Cup qualifying format to fit a new, post-coronavirus calendar is a very real possibility.
Speaking to media members on Monday afternoon, Montagliani acknowledged the complexity of relaunching competition as domestic leagues, national teams and overlapping international tournaments compete for space in a compressed timeline. And it’s still way too early to make any assumptions about when competition can restart, he warned. The next FIFA window is in early September.
“We’re tackling this not so much from a footballing standpoint but from a risk-management standpoint. … We need to be prudent here. We need to understand the most important thing is the health of our citizens,” Montagliani said. “Giving any unrealistic timelines is not responsible and I think we need to be prudent to say whenever it does come back we’re ready to go, but when that is I don’t think anybody can really guesstimate at this moment in time.”
Domestic league play will have to happen first, in part because of the slower reintroduction of international travel, and the likelihood “is probably high” of a phased-in approach where games initially are played in empty stadiums, Montagliani said. After that, Concacaf remains fully committed to staging the Nations League finals involving the USA, Mexico, Costa Rica and Honduras, he confirmed. Then hopefully, it’s on to World Cup qualifying and the 2021 Gold Cup next summer, among other events, despite a lot of unknowns.
“If everything goes well and if we all do what we’re supposed to do … maybe we can move the line up,” he said. “But on the balance of probabilities, having us playing in September is not very high, even sitting here in April.”
Here’s a rundown of the most significant subjects addressed by Montagliani, starting with the sport’s most important tournament:
World Cup Qualifying
Concacaf’s 2022 World Cup preliminaries were supposed to kick off in September under a new format, whereby the region’s top six teams in the FIFA ranking advanced straight to the Hexagonal—eliminating the old 12-team semifinal round—while the remaining 29 sides entered a lengthy process to determine a survivor to play the fourth-place Hex finisher in a playoff.
In an unexpectedly perfect world, there’s national team soccer in September. But would coaches want their first matches in seven months or more to be their biggest matches? Wouldn’t it make more sense to schedule the Nations League and/or friendlies for that first available window? Considering countries ranked outside the top six missed out on chances to accumulate points when games in March and June were canceled, wouldn’t it be unfairly arbitrary to slam the Hex door on them now?
Montagliani said there should be no surprises if there are changes.
“I think we’re also looking at the balance of possibilities and probabilities and if this calendar is going to change, how is it going to change and how will it affect the format of World Cup qualifying, which in likelihood will happen,” Montagliani said.
Even if there’s a Hex, the composition isn’t set, he added. Originally, the June FIFA ranking was to be used, and absent any June games, the top six will be Mexico, USA, Costa Rica, Jamaica, Honduras and El Salvador. That would eliminate the Hex hopes of the likes of Canada (Montagliani’s homeland), 2019 Gold Cup surprise Curaçao and 2018 World Cup participant Panama.
“That, to be honest, brings in a snippet of an integrity issue when teams haven’t been able to play,” Montagliani said of those countries now on the outside looking in. “What we’re committed to is ensuring the format, whatever the format will be, has to fit into what the new calendar is going to look like and also be done from a sporting standpoint.”
He continued, “We may have to look at reformatting what this looks like—whether this is a Hexagonal or some other shape that is part of a kid’s block set. What we don’t know is what this thing will look like.”
Although he said the current calendar mandates that qualifying conclude by the end of 2021, theoretically that deadline could be pushed into 2022 if FIFA is willing/able to move the intercontinental playoffs and the draw. There are also still 12 Concacaf nations involved in Gold Cup qualifying, meaning match dates will have to be reserved for that before the summer of 2021.
Speaking to SI.com last week, USA coach Gregg Berhalter said he was less concerned about an abrupt start to World Cup qualifying—all the teams will be in the same boat—then he is about preparation and consultation.
“We’ll do what we have to do. We’re clear with that. Whatever we have to do, we’ll do it,” said Berhalter, who hasn’t been able to work with any players since January camp. “But what I’d say is, I’d hope there will be some type of forum where teams can give input and see what makes the most sense. The way this is playing out, when are leagues going to restart their seasons? Is September going to be preseason time again? No one knows. What I’m thinking is, let the leagues set their schedule. Finish out this season [in Europe] and then let’s plan on international fixtures. They need to go hand-in-hand.”
Berhalter said he thought players would need to be training with their clubs for three weeks minimum “before they can get back safely on the field, and potentially more than that.”
Nations League and Olympic Qualifying
The inaugural Nations League title was supposed to be decided in June with two semifinals, a consolation and a final in Houston and Dallas. That’s not going to happen. And although it might make sense to simply skip those games so Concacaf has more leeway to schedule World Cup qualifying, Montagliani said that’s not going to happen either.
“We’re committed to our final four, which is probably our easiest to fit in because it’s only one weekend,” he said, acknowledging that the games may have to be moved from Texas because of stadium availability or other scheduling issues.
Montagliani lauded the Nations League, which provided international match dates for all 41 members of the region across three competitive tiers.
“It has brought our confederation together,” he said. “It has brought the confederation alive, and it would be irresponsible for us not to finish it off. … We’re committed to that. It’s not the hardest thing to fit into the calendar. It’s only two match days. We’re committed to all our competitions.”
Among those competitions is men’s Olympic qualifying, the U-23 event that was scheduled for March. With the Tokyo Olympics now pushed back until summer 2021, there’s time to fit those games in, especially since they don’t need to be played entirely inside a FIFA window (clubs aren’t required to release players for underage matches.) Montagliani said he could see the tournament being staged at a similar time next year and that Concacaf remained committed to holding it in Mexico.
The USA U-23s were drawn to play Mexico, Costa Rica and Dominican Republic in Guadalajara.
There’s a lot less pressure on Concacaf to schedule its club competitions. The Champions League, now in the middle of the quarterfinal stage, was going to conclude in early May but doesn’t really have to be done until November—in time to identify a team for December’s FIFA Club World Cup in Qatar.
“That’s also predicated on domestic football getting up and running and slotting it in to whatever schedule they might have,” Montagliani said. “But it feels like we should be able to massage that in there somehow.”
The Concacaf League, which is the region’s fall Champions League qualifier, doesn’t feature any MLS or Liga MX sides.
The only domestic circuit still operating in the region is Nicaragua’s 10-team Liga Primera.
Montagliani said Concacaf doesn’t have the authority to shut it down.
“We’re monitoring the situation. It’s a bit of a disappointment to be honest. I don’t know the specifics of the health issues there, but we’re obviously big-time monitoring that in terms of the impact on the players, and the clubs in terms of how they’re dealing with it,” he said. “I’ve seen that this is being pushed by the government, so that’s one of the things we’re trying to wrap our head around. It’s a bit of a head-scratcher to be honest. But whatever we can do to put pressure on to ensure the players are safe is paramount.”