Gold Cup delivers a dramatic return that ticks all the boxes

July 28 – The last time these two teams met Qatar beat the USA 14-8. That was in the vote for the 2022 World Cup hosting in 2010 and it unleashed a storm the like of which the football world has never seen.

Tonight Qatar – champions of Asia – play the US in the semi-final of the Gold Cup, Concacaf’s blue riband event for men’s national teams.

The 2010 World Cup vote was the trigger for a sequence of events that rocked football to its core as investigations into the vote process were instigated, followed by wider FBI investigations into FIFA officials and the eventual Department of Justice indictments of more than 40 FIFA office holders worldwide. It was a dark time for football and its governance.

But the football world, and the Concacaf world in particular, is in a very different place since then.

Invited as a guest, Qatar have brought a breath of fresh air to the Gold Cup both in their exciting attacking formation on the pitch and in the way they have conducted themselves off it. It has been a Gold Cup to remember coming out a covid-blighted international calendar – a tour de force for Concacaf’s organisation and determination to get international football back on schedule and fans back in stadia.

In 2019 Concacaf expanded the Gold Cup from 12 to 16 teams with immediate success in terms of broadcast and commercial metrics, as well as opening the opportunity for more member nations to compete.

In 2021 they expanded the Gold Cup again, albeit out of necessity. The preliminary qualifying for the Gold Cup saw 12 nations gather in Miami to battle through knockout rounds for the final three group slots. Bringing them together in Florida the week before the Gold Cup group stages kicked off, was the only way to fit the qualifiers into the calendar.

More nations, more games, and more exposure to the Gold Cup experience. If Concacaf could claim this was their strategy all along it would be a master stroke of planning. Who cares, it was a great way to announce that the region is still playing and we have 25 nations here to prove it.

Counting goals and group points became a much more engaging metric than counting covid positives, hospitalisations and deaths.

Even so, the Gold Cup has not been without its share of covid-controversy. Before a ball was kicked in the group stages a covid outbreak in the Curacao camp saw them withdrawn and speedy call for the return of Guatemala who hadn’t made it through the play-offs.

Covid outbreaks in the Haitian camp restricted their progress, as well impacting Jamaica’s anticipated challenge by keeping them isolated before key games.

Similarly the challenge of getting visas to enter the US presented more problems than many had expected. St Kitts and Nevis turned up with just 14 players while Cuba didn’t turn up at all – the reasons for their no-show are currently under investigation.

Dealing with the homophobic ‘puta’ chant that Mexican fans just don’t want to give up, was always going to be a challenge. It is a battle that is edging closer to being won.

Mexicans don’t seem to like a lot of things this tournament and without doubt one of them has been the referees – so much so that they complained to FIFA following their first game. In truth some of the refs seem to like a bit of bish bash – and at times there has been plenty of it. Concacaf’s referees don’t seem to like VAR – they should try and get to like it, it will save them a lot of abuse.

But perhaps the biggest takeaway from this is that you know you have a proper football tournament when you have controversy, and on that level it marks a coming of age for the tournament and its competitiveness. Negotiating major issues and over-heated passions has been great theatre. Without this kind of controversy – and how much of it really is controversy rather than a flexing of the human spirit and a testing of boundaries – it would be a pretty vanilla tournament experience.

Concacaf’s president Victor Montagliani said that the biggest thing he wanted to see achieved from this tournament was a return to international football being played in his region, getting fans back in stadiums, and seeing some great football being played.

With just the semi-finals and final to go he can tick all three boxes, knowing there could be still be twists in this tournament’s storyline to come. Perhaps starting with the first ever meeting between Qatar and the US outside of FIFA’s corridors of power.

Paul Nicholson is editor of Insideworldfootball, contact him at moc.l1681807459labto1681807459ofdlr1681807459owedi1681807459sni@n1681807459osloh1681807459cin.l1681807459uap1681807459