Copa America schedule change makes sense in the short term but not the long term
There are two highly significant dates in the development of national team football in South America.
One is 1916, when the Copa America got underway. The world's first continental competition, it was held frequently in the early years -- at times annually -- and was responsible for a rapid rise in playing standards. Indeed, a straight line connects the Copa with the birth of the World Cup 14 years later. Uruguay's gold medals in the Olympics of 1924 and 28 made a compelling case for the view that football had outgrown the Games, and needed a competition of its own, open to amateurs and professionals.
The other significant date is 1996, when South America introduced its marathon format of World Cup qualification. Previously the continent's 10 nations has been divided into groups, and qualification was a rapid process. Now, though, they were all placed in one big group, playing each other home and away, making use of FIFA dates over the course of three seasons.
This gave the South Americans the type of calendar that the Europeans took for granted -- regular competitive games and guaranteed income, with the chance to hire better coaches and keep a team together. Since then, Brazil's 2002 win is the only time South America has carried away the big prize. But the impact on the less traditional nations has been immense; 2006 was the best World Cup in Ecuador's history, as was 2010 for Paraguay and 2014 for Colombia. Chile's best ever were 2010 and 2014, with the exception of 1962, which it hosted. Peru, back in the competition for the first time in 36 years, gave eventual champions France a thoroughly competitive game while Uruguay, seemingly resigned to football's history books, have come roaring back in the last three tournaments.
But the expansion of the World Cup qualifiers had a negative effect on the Copa America. After falling into disuse, the Copa was brought back in 1987, and initially played every two years. From 1996 onwards, this meant that there was simply too much national team football in South America, and the Copa paid the price. The tournaments of 1997, 1999, 2001 and 2004 were undervalued by the presence of under-strength, experimental teams.
CONMEBOL, the South American Confederation, hit upon a solution; hold the Copa every four years, and use it to kick-start the next set of competitive games. In the continent's four-year cycle, the year following a World Cup has nothing but friendlies. Then comes the Copa, and soon afterwards, the qualifiers get going.
This is rational organisation, in which the Copa serves as both a warm-up tournament and a trophy to be won. It was the way things worked in 2007 in Venezuela, 2011 in Argentina, 2015 in Chile and next year in Brazil. But no more. Friday's FIFA Council meeting in Rwanda resolved that after 2019 the Copa will take place in even years.
There is a clear short-term benefit here for CONMEBOL. It gives them the green light to organise an extra version of the competition in 2020. The temptation will be to try to set up an enlarged tournament in the United States, along the lines of the 2016 Copa Centenario. With the FIFA-gate crisis hitting CONMEBOL's finances hard, this has an obvious attraction.
Looking further down the line, the benefits are harder to find. For one thing, the competition will not fill such an adequate slot in the four-year cycle -- taking place during the qualification campaign rather than preceding it. For another it means that the Copa will always be taking place at around the same time as its European equivalent, which will presumably have some effect on revenue. But it could work for FIFA. This leaves, for example, mid-2023 free of national team competitions -- a hole that FIFA aim to fill with a potentially lucrative global club tournament.
This is understandably controversial. But, as things stand, the imbalance between club football in Europe and the rest of the planet is clearly a problem. So if a global club competition comes to pass, and it an play some part in redressing the balance, then maybe 2023 will be looked back on as a vital year in the development of the game.