Although France '98 will have representatives from North and Central America, Neil Dixe Wills predicts that they won't upset the applecart

At the turn of the century Mexican president-cum-dictator Porfirio Diaz quipped, in what passed for wit in those days, “Poor Mexico: so far from God, so close to the United States.” Had he not shuffled off his mortal coil 82 years ago he might now be tempted to add, “But thank goodness we’re in the CONCACAF region.”

Anyone who has survived the unbridled exhilaration of Jamaica v USA, Canada v El Salvador and Canada v Jamaica ending in goalless draws will have become increasingly aware that the American continent to the north of Colombia is not going to supply the next world champions. In fact, if they can check out of the Hotel George V in Paris without having embarrassed themselves completely they can count it as something of a triumph.

Were it not for the presence of Mexico the CONCACAF area would be toughing it out with Oceania for the World’s Flimsiest Region title. Sadly, in the final qualifying group, little of the football has risen above the sterile, and although there have been exceptions to the rule – notably Costa Rica’s 3-2 win over USA and Mexico’s 6-0 humiliation of a bewildered Jamaica – there is a negativity and predictability about much of what has been offered up to us.

To a certain extent we should not be too surprised that the area is not throwing up Cameroons and Nigerias to challenge the hegemony of South America and Europe. For a start the demographics of the region are not helpful: the average population of the Central American countries is under five million, and the Caribbean’s most populous country, Cuba, boasts only eleven million inhabitants. All the CONCACAF countries outside of North America are generally tagged as underdeveloped (or “Fourth World” in the case of Haiti) save, perhaps, Costa Rica, which almost sees itself as the 51st state of the US.

That is not to say that poorer countries are immediately condemned to the footballing shadows – Africans have won all four Under-17 World Cups – but obviously it does mean that the number of professional footballers they can support and the training facilities those footballers have access to are limited in the extreme. In Central America, when money does come into the game, it often gets spent on importing proficient but unexceptional players from South America.

There is also the problem of competition from other sports. In the US and Canada, football is viewed as a minor sport, whilst in Nicaragua and Cuba baseball is king,. The Caribbean countries lean more towards cricket, although basketball and football are now making inroads. Looking at it baldly, the only decent-sized nation which has settled down and married football, and has a hefty mortgage and an espresso machine in the kitchen, is Mexico – hence their domination of the region.

Lamentably, the few headlines to have been made in connection with the qualifiers have concerned decidedly non-footballing activities. In April Jamaican players appeared to be restaging the Battle of Bosworth Field during their friendly against Mexican club side Toros Neza. After the umpteenth scything tackle went in, both teams squared up to each other and started lashing out. Some fans leapt onto the pitch and weighed in and, if my eyes did not deceive me, some of the coaching staff from both sides joined the mêlée. A letter written in the aftermath by Jamaican coach Dr Rene Simoes says rather cryptically, “Jamaica is always at a disadvantage since we have no background or reputation in Football.” FIFA has not been quite so generous in its interpretation of events, and the Jamaicans have been told that they will be thrown out of the group if they attempt any further re-enactions of the more flamboyant moments from English history. Such an outcome would be a tragedy after all the hard work put in by the team to come out of the shadow of the Caribbean’s hitherto top dog, Trinidad and Tobago.

In El Salvador, the problem centred around the crowd rather than the players. In their otherwise dull home match against Mexico, the sixty-fourth minute goal by the visitors was greeted with a hail of plastic water bottles which later threatened to black out the sky when El Salvador were denied a penalty with five minutes to go. The referee held the game up for ten minutes and the FIFA observer was called on to the pitch and, it appeared, shouted at by both sets of players and the home team’s Serb manager Milovan Djoric. FIFA imposed fines on El Salvador and their coach and promised dire sanctions if the fans misbehaved themselves again. Three weeks later, in the next home game, more bottles rained down after the USA took the lead.

If incidents like the above continue we could well see the group ending with just four teams tussling for the three qualification places, a state of affairs which would hardly be healthy for the region’s football, but which would certainly represent Canada’s best hope of qualifying, assuming they intend doing so without scoring again (they’ve managed one goal in four games so far).

So, what of the USA? I know that any Americans reading the following will think that it’s just another bitter bigoted hatchet job (and they’re right – I still haven’t forgiven the CIA for organizing the invasion of Guatemala in 1954) but, to quote Mark E Smith, “You’re not up to much.” Granted, the national side didn’t disgrace itself in ’94 and went on to reach the semi-finals of the Copa America two years later, but they are conspicuously dependent on Eric “Supersonic” Wynalda up front and the only other player worthy of note is Eddie Pope, a goal-scoring defender.

Even Alexi Lalas appears to be slowing down to match his fellow defenders’ singular lack of pace, an unpleasant discovery which was unearthed like some mediaeval cesspit during the defeat to Costa Rica. Unless manager Steve Sampson finds some promising new blood or some way of playing which doesn’t involve sending the crowd into a catatonic state after ten minutes he’s going to be hard pressed to repeat ’94’s performance, assuming they manage to sneak a ticket to France.

So, that’s the bad news from CONCACAF. The good news is that some of the countries in the region are beginning to benefit from the overseas experience garnered by their top players. Despite the fact that Costa Rica won the recent Central American championship without their “foreign legion”, they do look a more composed team when they have their six overseas players on the pitch, including Derby County’s Paulo Wanchope and Mauricio Solis.

The story is a little different for Jamaica, even though their squad is now blessed with no fewer than six players who earn their keep in England. Wimbledon supply Marcus Gayle (one cap for England Youth) and Robbie Earle, and as a result of a trial held in June last year, Portsmouth’s Deon Burton, Paul Hall and Fitzroy Simpson, and Luton’s Dwight Marshall were also added to the squad. However, not one of these players has been selected for the five group matches played so far. Dr Simoes has declared that he will be trying to use his foreign-based players on some sort of as-yet undefined rota basis which, assuming he isn’t having trouble getting the players released from their clubs, appears to mean that he feels he can do without them.

So, much though I would like to I cannot imagine that any of the teams that qualify will make an impact in Paris, with the possible exception of Mexico. Anything less than a quarter-final place will be seen as a calamity by their fans – which is ridiculous in that the Aztecas have only made the quarter-finals twice, both times as host nation.

One can only hope that the teams who qualify will use the experience as part of a learning curve rather than a chance to complete their set of Disney theme parks. If the opportunity is not taken, I fear the region will be left even further behind by the emerging nations in other parts of world who seem to be closing the gap on the Europeans and South Americans.

From WSC 127 September 1997. What was happening this month

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