Now, suppose you have the misfortune to work in a smaller company with less sway and experience. None of your coworkers have ever accomplished much in the industry, although a few are fairly experienced. Worst of all, your company consists of 10 people who are fairly experienced, and 25 people who are some of the most inexperienced and lowest paid people in the industry. They’re pretty much all cleaners and forklift operators. And these 25 people have formed a union, let’s call it Cleaners and Forklifters Union (CFU for short) to represent their interests. CFU members have almost no experience at the actual trade involved. They almost never get to attend the banquet. But they know there’s a lot of money in the trade, and people would be willing to go a long way to curry the favor of an executive committee member. Now, does this sound like a healthy situation? Do you think the company that you work for will appoint committee members that will be good for the association? That you, as a member of the company who is actually skilled at the trade, will be fairly represented?
If you are wondering who would set up a system so stupid and rife for corruption, and for some reason haven’t figured out the metaphor yet, the answer is FIFA, and the “company” I’m referencing is the CONCACAF, the regional confederation representing North America, Central America and the Carribean. North and Central American countries constitute 10 members of the confederation, while the other 25 are members of the Caribbean Football Union. Since the start of FIFA’s World Cup in 1930, a CFU team qualified for the World Cup a total of 4 times, and made it out of the group stages just once, when Cuba advanced to the quarter finals in 1938 (this was the last time Cuba qualified for the tournament).
That FIFA is ideally set up to facilitate self-enrichment and corruption is not a secret by any means. The FIFA Executive Committee consists of representatives of football powerhouses such as Thailand (0 world cup qualifications, ranked 114th in FIFA rankings), Sri Lanka (never qualified, ranked 177th), Papua New Guinea (ranked 160th, never qualified) and Cyprus (ranked 120th and, you guessed it, never qualified for a World Cup tournament). The fact that FIFA has become a collection of personal fiefdoms with no accountability has allowed Julio Grondona, the president of Argentinian Football Association and a member of the Executive Committee to publicly say, in reference to US 2022 World Cup bid and England’s 2018 World Cup bid, the following: “Yes, I voted for Qatar, because a vote for the US would be like a vote for England, and that is not possible [...] But with the English bid I said: Let us be brief. If you give back the Falkland Islands, which belong to us, you will get my vote”. Incredibly, (or not incredibly at all, to these familiar with FIFA’s day-to-day happenings), this statement caused no repercussions (and nor have the assorted variety of anti-Semitic statements uttered by Grondona over the years).
But the situation in CONCACAF is particularly bad. CFU members are some of the worst footballing countries in the world that also happen to be some of the poorest countries in the world, and they see the confederation as an us-against-them division between the Caribbean teams on one side and North and Central American teams on the other. From the 1990 until recently, CONCACAF was run by Jack Warner, by all accounts one of FIFA’s most corrupt officials. In general, majority in the CONCACAF allows CFU to dominate the confederation’s governance structure, which leads to a hilarious system that allows CFU delegates to act like power brokers in international football despite the fact that the last time the countries they represent have won an international game that counts was, quite literally, never. The other thing it allows them to do is accept bribes on a massive scale. Warner and a bunch of other CFU officials were finally deposed earlier this year when Chuck Blazer, the American Secretary General of the CONCACAF (no angel himself, by the way), has submitted credible evidence that various CFU members accepted bribes from Mohammed Bin Hammam, who at the time was running for FIFA presidency. According to the allegation, members of the CFU, in the most cartoonish-villainly style, were summoned to a hotel room where they were literally handed envelopes with cash, on behalf of Bin Hammam for “domestic project development” or some such. They were then told “not to tell anyone about the cash, not to discuss the cash with the others and not to show anyone the money”. Meanwhile, players for the Trinidad and Tobago are still waiting to receive their bonus payments for their trip to the 2006 World Cup from their association president, wait for it, Jack Warner.
I loathe to bring politics into a perfectly good soccer column, but as many recent experiences have demonstrated, democratic societies in which the supermajority has no stake in their decisions and no consequences, good or bad, for their choices, don’t tend to function particularly well. If this were politics, there would be two apparent (but difficult to implement) solutions. If you’re an idealist, you might suggest improving the lot of the downtrodden to a point where their decisions actually matter to them. Or if you’re a skeptic, you might suggest scrapping the whole democracy business and turning the oligopoly into an oligarchy.
But this is soccer, and there’s a third solution: Taking our ball and going home. There are two ways of accomplishing this. The first way is for the North and Central American countries to splinter from CFU and form a new confederation. The new CONCACAF would get 2.5 allocations in the World Cup, while CFU would get 0.5. In practice, this means that the top 2 teams from the new CONCACAF would get an automatic passage to the World Cup, while the third placer would play against CFU in a playoff, with the winner getting the final spot (it’s actually more complicated than that, since CONCACAF presently has 3.5 allocations, not 3, with the 4th team place already playing against 5th place team from the South American confederation, but those details can be figured out later). There’s a precedence for this in FIFA: Oceania Football Confederation. OFC’s members are so weak, that the confederation doesn’t get an automatic allocation at all – instead, the winner of OFC (usually New Zealand) has to play against a team from Asian Football Confederation to earn a spot.
The second way would be for the US to leave CONCACAF and join a different, existing federation – namely CONMEBOL, the South American confederation. There’s a precedence for this in FIFA: Israel, a country clearly in Asia, competes in UEFA, the European confederation, having been ejected from the Asian Football Confederation in 1974 due to Arab boycott (don’t get me started on this. If Israel competed in AFC, they would qualify for every World Cup. Any comprehensive Middle East peace solution must include reinstatement of Israel into the AFC). More relevantly, Australia, a country clearly in Oceania, competes in the AFC due to aforementioned crappiness of OFC.
Let’s suppose this is a viable option (it probably isn’t due to CONMEBOL’s unwillingness to expand past its geographical boundaries, but as everything in FIFA demonstrates, there’s no problem huge bags of unmarked bills can’t solve). Doing so would not be without shortcomings, the most glaring one would be that US would greatly struggle to qualify for future World Cups. Another shortcoming is that an unofficial survey of US soccer fans on a message board I frequent expressed unanimous opposition to this idea (and stated that I’m dumb for even suggesting it). However, as a member of CONCACAF, United States gets to play one meaningful game against good opposition, outside of the World Cup – whenever United States meets Mexico in the Gold Cup. While missing a World Cup would be very bad for US soccer, that possibility must be counterbalanced by increased exposure from routinely playing quality opposition.
In the end, it’s not clear whether the benefits of splintering CONCACAF or leaving it altogether and joining CONMENBOL, even if possible, outweigh the drawbacks. Perhaps US soccer has to close their eyes to the dirtiness of CONCACAF (and to some degree, FIFA in general), even when it hurts them, as it did in their attempt to secure the bid for 2022 World Cup. Accept reality for what it is, be thankful for having a cakewalk to the World Cup by virtue of playing in a Little Sisters of the Poor confederation, and focus on improving from within. However, it’s fun to dream about a soccer reality where people like Jack Warner are someone else’s problem.