In January 2011, then-CONCACAF president Jack Warner called for his confederation—which comprises FIFA member nations in North and Central America—to receive a maximum of five World Cup spots, one more than the current four.
“We have earned it,” Warner reasoned. “Our teams have proven themselves on the field of play, our administrative capacity has grown on and off the field of play; we have shown that CONCACAF is a powerhouse."
Fans of the sport, even supporters of CONCACAF nations, would be forgiven if they thought Warner was out his mind. After all, though the two powerhouses USA and Mexico went out in the round of 16 in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, the only other CONCACAF entrant Honduras earned a single point in a group with Spain, Chile and Switzerland. At the time Warner made his bold request, the United States was ranked 34th in the world by FIFA. Mexico was 21st. Honduras, Costa Rica and Panama were 53rd, 65th, 49th respectively.
Warner however may have seen a vision of the future. Today those same CONCACAF nations—the United States, Mexico, Honduras, Costa Rica and Panama—are respectively ranked 13th, 20th, 28th, 33rd and 31st. That’s a collective jump of 97 spots over a three year period.
While it would take more than a single post to explain the reasons for the overall improvement in the region, we can see some evidence for it in the current World Cup. Costa Rica shocked the bookies after beating former World Cup winners Italy and Uruguay in Group D, earning a spot in the round of 16. Mexico held overwhelming tournament favourites Brazil to a 0-0 draw after winning their opening match against Cameroon. And while Honduras faces an uphill battle with two losses and zero points in Group E, the United States broke a long-running curse against arch-rivals Ghana with an incredible last minute 2-1 win.
If the United States earns a respectable result against Portugal on Sunday, there will be a sense that CONCACAF has truly arrived. Perhaps this is the reason why some American supporters are cheering on their rivals, Tweeting 'CONCACAF!' as Mexico or Costa Rica score. Even the U.S. national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann got into the mood by Tweeting out congrats to Costa Rica, a side that beat the U.S. in the final round of World Cup qualifying.
I suspect however the warm and fuzzy feeling comes less out of a selfish desire for another World Cup spot, and instead reflects something more personal. Unlike UEFA (Europe) and CONMEBOL (South America), and to some extent CAF (Africa), the unique nature of World Cup qualifying in Central and North America goes mostly unnoticed by the outside world.
Few players can explain to outsiders what it’s like to travel to broiling stadiums like San Pedro Sula in Honduras, to stay at hotels where home fans camp out for hours on end to disrupt the sleep of their opponents, to train in facilities of wildly varying quality, play in snow for a home game and then in 100 degree heat for the away fixture. Dealing with CONCACAF referees.
There is the fan experience. Searching in vain at the last minute for online streams to monitor other crucial results. Watching your team make it to the brink of qualification for the next round only to see them lose 8-1 in their final match. “Home” stadiums half-filled with rival expats, largely ruining home field advantage. The weird consistency of Dos a Cero. Dealing with CONCACAF referees (and using CONCACAF as a verb whenever these same refs make a bad decision).
Getting through CONCACAF qualifying requires its own unique skill set, one that often doesn’t translate to the Big Show. In 1985, Canadian national team coach Tony Waiters helped his nation qualify for their one and only World Cup by scheduling a crucial home match against Honduras in the blustery cold of St. John’s Newfoundland—Canada won 2-1 and secured their ticket to the World Cup the following year. However, after a qualifying campaign that relied a lot on fitness and set-pieces to silent voracious away crowds, Canada earned zero points in their group in the tournament, failing to score a single goal.
Similarly former U.S. national team coach Bob Bradley was something of a CONCACAF expert, but was deemed tactically naive by some at the World Cup, never getting beyond the round of 16. Jurgen Klinsmann himself received a baptism by fire, drawing with Guatemala and losing to Jamaica in qualifying during his second and third matches in charge. Meanwhile Mexico have long been regarded as perennial World Cup underachievers despite over a half century of CONCACAF dominance.
With the exception of Honduras, that doesn’t seem to be as much of a problem in the current travel heavy, hot and humid World Cup. That’s also why it’s such a joy for long-suffering CONCACAF fans to see elite football nations face off against a team in form like Costa Rica and lose.
All this regional pride has less to do with strategic interest, and more with the schadenfreude of watching the world’s biggest footballing nations finally get CONCACAF’d, for once. It’s your turn, world. Feel the wrath of Costa Rica in the sun. See how you like it.