Expanding the Gold Cup was the right thing to do, says Montagliani

...Salutes Caribbean teams for their coming of age in 'competitve' 2019 edition

BY SEAN A WILLIAMS
Deputy Sport Editor
williamss@jamaicaobserver.com

Saturday, July 13, 2019

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When Victor Montagliani boldy announced that his administration will undertake a massive expansion of the Gold Cup, more than a few eyebrows were raised.

The Concacaf president had barely settled into his chair after being elected in 2016, before he went about implementing the changes that needed to recalibrate the confederation onto a path of good governance and footballing opportunities for the 41-member grouping.

With regards to the expansion of the Gold Cup specifically, there were concerns that increasing the participation may lead to a dilution of the quality of the competition, plus the cost factor and structure of the qualification process.

But Montagliani and his team of like-minded revolutionary thinkers had it all figured out.

In tandem with the Gold Cup plan to expand the tournament from 12 to 16 teams, the confederation had inaugurated a new national competition called the Nations League.

Through its qualification phase, smaller nations of the subcontinental grouping, especially those from the Caribbean subset, were getting unprecedented opportunity and exposure through international top-level games.

Crucially also, the Nations League has spawned a revival in the game because now member nations that were previously left behind can now believe and dream.

The Concacaf Nations League qualifying competition in essence served as a qualifier for the recently concluded Gold Cup and seeded teams in the three tiers of the Nations League, which kicks off in September.

Another courageous move on the part of Concacaf was to build-out the Gold Cup to virginal frontiers by allowing member associations in the Caribbean (Jamaica) and Central America (Costa Rica) to host games for the first time. That decision, too, provided fodder for doubters and those failing to see the big picture.

With broad support from member associations, stakeholder interests and his working executive, Montagliani pressed on, but staying true to the spirit of the One Concacaf Vision and Football First philosophy.

The recently concluded Gold Cup, which Mexico won 1-0 over the USA at Soldier Field last Sunday, is being hailed as perhaps the most competitive, with Caribbean teams coming in for special praise.

The performances have been traced back directly to the Nations League qualifiers, and Montagliani has also made the connection.

“What we have seen is that these teams (Caribbean) no longer fear anybody; Haiti did not fear Mexico, Guyana did not fear the USA, Bermuda did not fear Costa Rica, Haiti did not fear Costa Rica, and Jamaica did not fear anybody.

“In fact, you could see that they (Reggae Boyz) were upset when they lost to the USA because they thought they were the better side,” said the Concacaf boss.

Montagliani believes there is a shift in mentality and thinking of Caribbean football, which redounds to a competitive landscape down the road.

“What we have was a mindset change and you can see that when you watch the games, and that to me comes from the fact that the teams are now experiencing more football through the Nations League and the Gold Cup.

“With this mindset change you are going to see this kind of competition when it comes to the World Cup qualification and in every competition that we will have,” said the Canadian.

For the first time, two Caribbean teams made it to the semi-finals of the Gold Cup.

Haiti, qualifying for their first semi-finals, were edged 1-0 by eventual champions Mexico in a fiercely competitive match. Jamaica, who have been to consecutive finals (2015 & 2017), were knocked out by hosts USA 3-1 in their final-four contest.

Also of note, Curacao, who were playing in only their second Gold Cup having debuted in 2017, finished second in Group C to Jamaica and historically booked a quarter-final berth.

“Jamaica were expected to do well after back-to-back finals, and obviously Haiti, Curacao and Bermuda did well, and my comment is that obviously these teams benefited from playing in the Nations League qualification because they were sharper, crisper and tactically they were more aware of how they wanted to play,” noted Montagliani, who himself played the game in his youth.

The Fifa vice-president said the initial apprehension to the Gold Cup expansion plans came as no surprise.

“When you are going to have expansion there is always going to be a bit of that (detractors), but a lot of it comes from some level of fear mongering from the usual suspects.

“When you do something like expansion it's not just about the next tournament, it's about looking down the road, but you have to be ready to push the envelope to give people opportunity, because at the end of the day, one of the most important pillars of development is opportunity and I think that is one of the things that has been lacking in Concacaf for a long time,” Montagliani told the Jamaica Observer following Sunday's Gold Cup final in Chicago.

Spreading the Gold Cup to the Caribbean is thought to have been another masterstroke as it not only realised a novel concept, but will leave a lasting legacy on first-time hosts Jamaica and Costa Rica.

“Having the new venues is another aspect of the expansion and I was never going to measure it by the bum on seats and revenues as that was never the intention, although obviously we had two great crowds in Jamaica and Costa Rica.

“But more importantly just the feeling and the passion in the stadiums and seeing how much it meant to the countries in terms of the pride of hosting the Gold Cup, and with that, I believe it was a resounding success,” he said.

Montagliani was also happy with the introduction of Concacaf's new grass roots activation NextPlay to the Gold Cup

“Having NextPlay a part of this Gold Cup I thought was a stroke of genius from our director of development, Jason Roberts. I think it's important to have that link between our future and current players.

“Having experienced those kids who came from Jamaica, Bahamas, Barbados, and Trinidad and Tobago for that final weekend, just looking in their eyes when they came to Soldier Field, it was amazing and you learn more from that experience than in the board room. It was a brilliant linkage to what football is really about,” Montagliani chirped.

Even though a review has not yet been carried out to assess the performance of the 2019 edition, Montagliani notes that there are indicators that suggest the Gold Cup was “a massive success”.

“It would be very hard to say that the Gold Cup was not a success both from an attendance standpoint and from television. Univision just put out that the Gold Cup final was watched by more people on their network than the World Cup final last year, so I think it's an obvious massive success,” said the football official.

The Gold Cup, in its 15th edition, has always prided itself as a well-organised competition and a commercial success. Still, organisers strive to stay on the ball to maintain the high standards.

“There is always going to be the need for improvement, we have not yet had the opportunity to do a deep review, but we are going to have one in August. Obviously, when you put on a tournament of this magnitude there are going to be facets that you can improve on whether it's venue, hospitality and transportation.

“I can tell you that teams were very happy with how they were treated, the pitches were great and this makes the teams happy, but I am sure when we would have completed our deep review, there are areas we will find that we can improve on,” Montagliani ended.


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