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New moves aim to add suspense, unpredictability to Gold Cup — Montagliani

Thursday, September 10, 2020

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President of the Confederation of North America, Central America and Caribbean Football Association (Concacaf), Victor Montagliani, thinks having an invitee to the 2021 edition of the Gold Cup should be seen as an asset rather than a liability.

In announcing sweeping changes to the confederation's marquee national tournament last week Wednesday, the Concacaf boss revealed that Asian champions Qatar will be the guest team at a “robust” and “expanded” version of the biennial showpiece.

In addition to a guest team returning to the championship for the first time since 2005, Montagliani also unveiled plans for a “first-ever” draw of the 16-nation competition.

He told the Jamaica Observer that while 16 countries will compete in the main segment of the 16th edition of the Gold Cup, he sought to bring into focus that the tournament will indeed involve 24-member associations, which, he argues, stays true to the build-out of the platform that started with the expansion to 16 teams in 2019.

“Our Gold Cup now, not only increased to 16, but in essence it's a 24-team Gold Cup…we have 24 Concacaf nations that will be at the Gold Cup, as 12 will be in the preliminary round, and then they go from 12 to three teams.

“There are 12 already waiting in the group stage that qualified through the Nations League, so having a guest only enhances the experience…in the past the guest would take away, but now the guest is an addition and this is part of the entire platform,” Montagliani said.

He said he would appreciate any concerns that would be raised of having a cross-continental guest team in a 12-team format, as that could be seen as denying a Concacaf member association the opportunity to parade its team on the high-profile stage of the Gold Cup.

But with 24 Concacaf members due to contest the 2021 edition, firstly in a 12-nation preliminary competition to determine three qualifiers for the final group stage, the Canadian businessman believes the confederation will be well-served with an expanded format with “the full Gold Cup experience”.

“If we had a Gold Cup of 12 countries and we would take a spot away, I think that would be a fair comment…but now we not only have a group stage of 16, but also a preliminary round of 12.

“And though the preliminary round is called a preliminary round, it's still the Gold Cup. The countries [in preliminary tournament], for instance, will play two games and go home, while the countries in the group stage that are waiting, they will play three games and go home, so there's not much of a difference between the preliminary round and the group stage.

“So the truth of the matter is, with a robust Gold Cup of 24 teams now, I think that argument [of a guest team depriving a member association] doesn't really hold a candle. And I can tell you from the response of our member associations, that was overwhelmingly and unanimously positive, that this is not even a thought,” he stated.

Montagliani, who assumed the reins of the continental body in 2016, said when Concacaf had guest teams participating in the past, it was a feature that lacked what was seen as true purpose and consideration for critical areas of concerns.

The re-introduction of the guest element to the Gold Cup, with World Cup hosts Qatar set to compete in 2021 and 2023, is said to be based on fundamental reciprocal development programmes entrenched in a working memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the Asian Football Confederation (AFC).

“I mean when it was done in the past, I don't think there was any thought process to it, and it was a very small tournament and I'm not sure it was done without any thought about legacy or stuff like that. But this time it was born out of the fact of true partnership.

“You know we've already started as we have had referees from the Asian confederation officiating in the Gold Cup and Champions League for the last few years, and we have had referees go over there and there have been other exchanges at the development area,” Montagliani noted.

The Fifa vice-president outlined that the partnerships between Concacaf and the AFC have sprouted veins beyond just the game, but crucially, involve activations in keeping with a multifaceted “social responsibility platform”.

“The other thing that we're also doing with our partner is we've entered an agreement with our social responsibility platform, for example NextPlay…our NextPlay programmes are going to get a tremendous boost because you're going to join with the Generation Amazing platform that they [AFC] have to boost investment in our area for underprivileged children.

“Social responsibility programmes are great things at the best of times and I think where we are today in the world where this is more important, and why? Social responsibility programmes are hitting us where we need to be hit, which is in our youth where we teach them about diversity, about caring, about empathy and all through the game of football, and so this is to me one of the best things about this MOU,” Montagliani explained.

The Concacaf president said the new draw system to determine group placements will add unpredictability and intrigue to Gold Cup 2021, which he expects to be “bigger and better” than the 2019 staging.

“What will happen is we will for the first time ever have an actual draw [on September 28], where we will have a straight out draw where we have the four heads of the groups, and then an actual draw.

“For instance, if a Mexico or US don't win the group, they could meet each other prior to the final, so it's much more a football conscious sort of format…it's now more unpredictable, because if you don't win your group, you could be facing teams, on paper anyway, your rival like a US-Mexico situation.

“The reason why we've done this is because Concacaf is much more competitive and the Nations League has put that to the test and has passed with flying colours because you see the results that have happened in our Nations League and in our last Gold Cup with countries like Curacao getting into the knockout phase, so because of the increase of our competitiveness in our teams, this leads to more unpredictability and more suspense,” Montagliani reasoned.

Prior Gold Cups saw teams face sides from their own group until the final, but now they will cross groups to open the last eight knockout matches.

In addition to Qatar competing in the Gold Cup, a first-time draw and a widened 24-member association Gold Cup, there are other frills as the confederation hammers out its Football First Philosophy as it applies to its top national competitions.

“So, not only do we have the actual draw, but we will have VAR, and simultaneous matches at the last group stage, so that you don't know the result of the other teams, and these are all part of that Football First mentality that we started to institute four years ago and we are seeing the fruits of that,” Montagliani noted.

He said the shaping of the Gold Cup as it now manifests itself, in the main, was part of long-term strategic planning, but conceded that sudden fate lent a helping hand along the way.

“Most of them [Gold Cup initiatives] were always on the card…the only one that I thought was fortuitous and we took advantage of the situation was the preliminary round; those were initially supposed to be home and away fixtures borne out of the Nations League and where they finished in the Nations League, and because of the pandemic, we were faced with the reality that because of the calendar, it was going to be very hard to pull off.

“So, we decided to make it a part of the Gold Cup by playing single knockout games at the preliminary round and give them [teams] the experience of the Gold Cup at a Gold Cup venue. So that one kind of fell in our laps and so we took advantage of that, but everything else has been in the works since the first day I walked in office,” Montagliani ended.

The countries that have already qualified for the Gold Cup group stage are Mexico, the United States, Canada, Jamaica, Costa Rica, Curacao, El Salvador, Grenada, Honduras, Panama, Martinique, and Suriname.

Three other group stage spots will go to qualifiers from a 12-team preliminary round knockout event from July 2-6, 2021, at a US venue with The Bahamas, Barbados, Bermuda, Cuba, French Guiana, Guadeloupe, Guatemala, Guyana, Haiti, Montserrat, St Vincent and the Grenadines, and Trinidad and Tobago to do battle.