Welcome, Greenlandic soccer players, supporters and administrators! Your May 2022 application to join the Confederation of North American, Central American and Caribbean Association Football is duly noted here and across the diverse climatic environs of CONCACAF. Yes: The acronym is unfortunate. Perhaps because those letters had never before been thrown together, in such a poorly branded sequence, until Sept. 18, 1961. That’s when the North American Football Confederation merged with the Confederación Centroamericana y del Caribe de Fútbol. Still, as lifelong American subject of CONCACAF, as it were, I feel an obligation to warmly and gladly receive all Greenlanders — and let you know exactly what you’re getting into. If the fourth and final season of the Danish political drama Borgen was any indication, you’ll fit right in.
To be honest, even those of us born and raised in CONCACAF frequently struggle to understand and acclimate to the peculiar state of play here, north of the Panama Canal. As such, the first order of business is a definition of terms: In the course of writing my recent book, Generation Zero: Founding Fathers, Hidden Histories & The Making of Soccer in America (Dickinson-Moses Press, 2022), I describe and document a dozen different historical episodes that help convey and define — for Greenlanders and the wider soccer world — just what a fabulously bizarre, unpredictable and colorful entity CONCACAF has shown itself to be these last 60 years. Eventually, I necessarily coined a phrase that sums it up explicitly:
CONCACAFkaesque, adj., bewilderingly dodgy, corrupt or otherwise substandard; slightly embarrassing but nevertheless compelling; descriptive of match management, field conditions, stadium security, fan behavior and/or administrative ethics as rendered by game officials, futbol supporters, federations, confederations, local governments and security forces in North/Central American and Caribbean regions; as in, The decision from Trinidad & Tobago’s national soccer federation to sell its home fixtures in spring 1985 was predictably CONCACAFkaesque.
That last bit? Actual fact, from the book: When T&T attempted to qualify for the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, the Soca Warriors faced the United States and Costa Rica in a preliminary group stage the year prior. Under the leadership of Soccer Corruption Hall of Famer Jack Warner (see below), the T&T Football Federation was apparently so hard up for cash, it resolved to sell its home fixture to the U.S. Soccer Federation — for a reported $40,000, in 1985 dollars. It also sold an earlier home date to Costa Rica, in the same competition, for a sum that remains undisclosed.
With regional heavyweights USA, Mexico and Canada co-hosting World Cup 2026 and qualifying automatically into a larger Finals field of 48, competition for the remaining confederation places will be contested tooth and nail. What’s more, the Confederation’s regional championship, The Gold Cup, is scheduled for this summer (June 24-July 16). To further educate and prep Greenlanders for membership, see below a useful listicle/primer: The Top 5 Most CONCACAFkaesque Moments of All Time. I should point out that T&T selling home dates to Confederation rivals did not make the list. Our history of dysfunction is that rich. Neither did FIFA’s ban of Belize from 1990 World Cup qualifying on account of “outstanding debt.” Not even close.
The Football War
Each of the six FIFA-certified confederations features border rivalries of great intensity, but few can “boast” legitimate military fallout from specific competitions. Some argue this particular conflict, waged briefly in July of 1969, is unfairly attributed to footballing matters. And it’s true the root cause — neo-colonial land reforms in Honduras, engineered via capitalist proxy by the notorious United Fruit Co. — had greatly destabilized relations between Honduras and neighboring El Salvador starting in 1967. El Salvador, then home to some 6 million souls spread thickly across 21,000 square kilometers, remains a far more densely populated nation compared to Honduras. More than 300,000 Salvadorans had, in fact, crossed the border to Honduras during the 1950s and ‘60s to work the land there. United Fruit responded by bullying the Honduran government into land reforms that essentially allowed forced removal of subsistence farmers — Hondurans, but especially Salvadorans — from huge swaths of countryside controlled by rich landowners, corporate and otherwise. Against this geopolitical/economic backdrop, El Salvador visited Tegucigalpa on June 8, 1969, for the first of a two-leg World Cup Qualifier. With Mexico hosting the 1970 Mundial, thus qualifying automatically, CONCACAF’s resident 800-pound gorilla no longer stood in anyone’s way. The stakes were very high all around.
Honduras won the opener, 1-0; significant fan violence ensued. A week later, in San Salvador, the home side claimed a 3-0 result; clashes between supporters inside and outside the stadium proved far worse. No away-goals rule in 1969. As tensions grew — diplomatically and across rural Honduras — CONCACAF failed to organize a playoff for 12 long days. It was finally held June 27, on neutral ground in Mexico City, where the Salvadorans prevailed 3-2 in extra time. Just moments after the final whistle blew, El Salvador severed diplomatic ties with its neighbor, alleging that 11,700 of its expatriate citizens had been forced to abandon their homes in Honduras, where the government had done nothing to prevent or punish “these crimes which constitute genocide.” The Salvadoran Army invaded on July 14, launching air strikes using passenger airplanes with explosives strapped to their fuselages. The Hondurans’ own ragtag air force (this was the last conflict between piston-engined fighter planes) attacked Salvadoran oil-refining infrastructure in the port of Acajutla. The Organization of American States moved faster than CONCACAF, intervening on July 18 and declaring a cease fire (hence the conflict’s other common appellation, The 100-Hour War), which took lasting effect on July 20.
Americans tend to assume that whenever the U.S. Men’s National Team (USMNT) travels to Central America for a full international, locals reserve a special animus for the hyper-capitalist bullyboys from El Norte. This is more a testimony to our own self-importance. Salvadorans and Guatemalans, for example, tend to resent the culturally domineering behemoth directly to their north just as much, if not more. Understanding of the Football War should help us better interpret where we stand and how deeply held these border derbies can be. This conflict claimed 3,000 civilian lives, after all, most of them Hondurans, though figures remain to this day hotly disputed. Relations between the two nations have never truly recovered, as the conflict served to elevate military factions on either side of the border. In El Salvador, many believe military operations that summer of 1969 ultimately led to a 1979 coup and subsequent civil war that lasted until 1992. For the record, El Salvador did advance to the 1970 World Cup, topping Haiti in the final playoff. It dropped all three matches and failed to score.
Better Late than NeVAR?
On Jan. 19, 2022, CONCACAF announced the institution of VAR, the video assistant referee, for its Octagonal — the 8-team, final qualifying tournament that would ultimately send regional sides to the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar. In explaining the timing of its decision, which arrived prior to the slate of January/February 2022 fixtures, a Confederation press release cited “successful implementation of VAR in the 2021 CONCACAF Nations League Finals, the 2021 CONCACAF Gold Cup and the latter stages of the 2021 Scotiabank CONCACAF Champions League.”
Just one problem: The previous eight Octagonal fixtures had already been contested and had not deployed VAR. And so, CONCACAF blithely glossed over its transgression of tournament management’s cardinal rule: The first eight fixtures and final eight fixtures of this single competition would not be conducted in a uniform fashion. My favorite bit? Citing these 2021 tournaments as the reason the Confederation pulled the trigger — six months later, halfway through its 2022 World Cup Qualifying schedule!
To be fair, only CONMEBOL, in South America, and the Asian Football Confederation handled this matter properly: Both implemented VAR ahead of final qualifying tournaments. In Europe, UEFA got religion in September 2021, prior to Matchday 4, about a third of the way into its schedule. CAF, the African Confederation, eschewed VAR entirely until FIFA stepped in and insisted on its implementation — at FIFA’s expense — prior to the final playoff stage. And let’s be clear: VAR is new. It has always been and remains controversial. There are real costs associated with equipping stadia with the necessary video technology, and CONCACAF had company in its dereliction. But only CAF handled this business more poorly. And that is a very low bar indeed.
“Don’t tell me how to rob a bank. I know how to rob a bank.”
It was Chuck Blazer who convinced Jack Warner to run for CONCACAF president back in 1989. Each man had spent the previous decade working for their respective national soccer federations: Blazer rose to executive vice president in charge of international competition under USSF President Werner Fricker, while Warner had served as general secretary of the Trinidad & Tobago Football Federation since 1973 (it was he, in fact, who auctioned off those home dates during 1986 World Cup qualifying). Blazer managed Warner’s Confederation campaign and, upon his election, in 1990, the two quickly became the Butch & Sundance of federation-style cash-skimming, bribe-taking and influence-peddling. It goes without saying that both men did long stints on the FIFA Executive Committee, a sort of finishing school for would-be futbol rogues. Were it not for these two grifters, we might never have required a term like CONCACAFkaesque.
Blazer served under Warner as CONCACAF general secretary until 2011. A year later, when the FBI and IRS uncovered more than a decade of unpaid taxes on hidden, multimillion-dollar incomes, Blazer turned state’s evidence. Warner today remains confined to the island nation of his birth, as he resists extradition to the United States on 2015 charges of wire fraud, racketeering and money laundering. Blazer died of cancer in 2017, before his many indictments could be adjudicated.
This sort of corruption is not restricted to CONCACAF or any particular confederation, of course; it’s been the coin of FIFA’s realm for going on 100 years. But Warner and Blazer raised such conduct to high art. They did produce for their Confederation on several meaningful fronts. For instance, they transformed CONCACAF from an international guppy dominated by Mexico into a hugely profitable and influential outfit, with the U.S. and its vast, lucrative media market at its core. However, their years together also yielded a laundry list of shameless self-dealing. We haven’t the room here to detail them all. I went with the following example because its shows that Warner in particular was always prepared to screw/swindle his own countrymen, as readily as anyone else, inside or outside the region:
Prior to the 2006 World Cup in Germany, when Warner no longer served the Trinidad & Tobago Football Federation (TTFF) in any official capacity, he brokered a deal between that Federation and T&T’s national team players to divvy up the proceeds routinely paid out by FIFA to participating countries. Warner had not led the TTFF since 1997, when he left to lead the Caribbean Football Union. But he did serve as “special advisor” to his home federation — a role he enjoys to this day. After the 2006 tournament, the Federation declared revenue of 18.25 million T&T dollars and costs of TT$17.9 million; it offered players a split of TT$5,644.08 per man (a single U.S. dollar at this time was the equivalent of some 6.3 TT$). Thirteen players, led by former West Ham keeper Shaka Hislop, balked. Warner publicly alleged the players were “holding a country and a federation ransom.” The Trinidad & Tobago government eventually revealed the Federation had received in excess of TT$173 million for taking part in the tournament. An arbitrator from the U.K. Sports Dispute Resolution Panel ruled the players were entitled to 50 per cent of the World Cup money, half the commercial revenues realized via Trinidad & Tobago’s qualification, and half the net income from World Cup warm-up matches. Warner and the TTFF refused to acknowledge this settlement directive. In fact, according to the players’ British lawyer, Michael Townley, the Federation defaulted on its fee-payment to the arbitration body. Warner got himself elected to Parliament in 2007. He served the administration of Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar as Minister of National Security from 2010-2013. Not coincidentally, the players were finally paid in 2014 — by Persad-Bissessar’s government, not by Warner nor the TTFF. According to Townley, “If I was a citizen of Trinidad and Tobago or even a football fan, I would be pissed off at this. It is a messy situation because essentially someone else has paid Warner’s debt and he is off the hook again.”
Night of Fiery Frisbees
The prospect and spectacle of away internationals may inform our own notions of CONCACAF and its international reputation more than anything else. World futbol observers may not expect World Cup semifinalists from our region, but they do expect dodgy field conditions, dangerously capricious fan behavior, military juntas leveraging futbol to project and prop up dubious powers, trash and urine bags raining down on visiting players and supporters, and, naturally, the need for armed escorts to and from match venues. CONCACAF has served up this smorgasbord of shithousery for six decades now. As such, it’s difficult to identify a single example of these dynamics, so routine are these pageants of footballing ignominy. Just think of all the matches played across our region in empty stadia, because prior fan behaviors had proved so egregious. Still, I chose to spotlight this Olympic qualifier from October 18, 1987, back in San Salvador, because it showcased all the above qualities — salted with real competitive stakes, not-insignificant whimsy and inclusive of death threats.
On this night, inside Estadio Cuscatlán (“The Colossus of Montserrat”), Lothar Osiander’s young USMNT shocked a crowd of 35,000 by scoring the first three goals and cruising to a “comfortable” 4-2 victory that essentially clinched qualification for the ’88 Seoul Olympics. “Our game plan was to feel them out for the first 10 minutes or so,” reports midfielder Brian Bliss, today the technical director at Sporting KC. “Then we scored at four minutes and 10 minutes — that was supposed to be the feeling-out period! The fans were stunned. The El Salvador team was stunned. To tell you the truth, we were, too.”
American defender Paul Krumpe recalls some first-class caprice from the home fans: “When that game started and El Salvador was stringing some passes together, they got the Olé! chant going. But once we were up 3-0, at halftime, it got ugly. I remember, as a wide player, the ball would roll out of bounds and I had to look up each time — to avoid all the bottles and trash being thrown my way. By that time, the crowd was Olé-ing us and throwing trash at their own guys!”
Play would eventually be stopped three separate times, as the home crowd grew increasingly annoyed at the completely unanticipated U.S. performance. Each assistant referee was struck by a plastic bottle. Eventually the crowd started lighting seat cushions on fire and flinging them about the stadium. “I think the seat cushions were given out by sponsors, as a promotion,” Bliss recalls. “The fans lit them up and turned them into fiery Frisbees! Lothar [Osiander] was a master at preparing us, painting a terrible, scary picture of what to expect. But I think we were so naive, the scene in San Salvador didn’t faze us. That’s how dumb we were. We didn’t know any better.”
“We had to stay in the locker room for about two hours afterward,” Krumpe adds. “It wasn’t a locker room really, more of an underground bunker. We had to wait because there were death threats. I remember the bus that finally did pick us up — it had bullet holes! There were Uzis in the Jeep escorts, in front and behind.”
The Cachirules Affair
In July 1988, when Mexico was banned from Italia ’90 qualifying, folks around the world assumed that FIFA was paving the way for its newly announced host of the 1994 World Cup. This is the presumption still today. In meting out penalties for the use of underage players at multiple youth tournaments, FIFA did indeed lower the boom El Tri, who were additionally excluded from the 1989 World Youth Championship and the 1988 Seoul Olympic soccer tournament. However, these measures did not benefit American World Cup fortunes in 1989, not directly (even if many members of that USMNT still think so). Either way, it’s a damned interesting story and remains a huge deal south of the border, where its effects are similarly misunderstood.
About the name: cachirul or cachirulo were early 20th-century terms used to describe a clothing patch of ragtag quality. In what soon developed as Mexican soccer vernacular, the terms came to describe mercenary players, meaning those who aren’t really on the team but appear as ringers. Because substitute players commonly used the names of those listed on club rosters, they were said to represent a cachirul, and the Mexican Football Federation (FMF) did get caught red-handed in 1988: Journalist Antonio Moreno broke the story after studying an FMF yearbook where the players’ ages did not correspond to those supplied to CONCACAF prior to qualification for the U-20 World Cup. The Federation flatly denied the allegation. After Moreno twisted in the wind for a time, other investigating media reached the same conclusion and the Mexican futbol community erupted in turmoil — though one might reasonably ask why. As then-USMNT coach Bob Gansler told me, “Not their first offense.” Eventually, in April 1988, the U.S. Soccer Federation submitted an official complaint to CONCACAF, demanding the case be investigated. When the Guatemalans joined the protest, FIFA had no choice but to act. The justice dispensed on July 1, 1988 proved swift and harsh.
But here’s the rub, as it relates to FIFA’s extension of special treatment to the U.S. (which is how folks on both side of the border have long viewed this World Cup/U-20/Olympic ban), it’s a nothingburger. Mexico’s punishment was handed down July 1, 1988. FIFA announced its 1994 World Cup host on July 4, producing optics that remain undeniably poor. However, the final stages of CONCACAF qualification had already been scheduled. El Tri were slated to play Costa Rica in a preliminary home & home knockout one month hence. The Ticos ultimately went through by forfeit and ended up winning the final Pentagonal, with the U.S. qualifying for Italia ’90 in second place. In short, just one nation was ever going to advance from that preliminary tie pitting Costa Rica and Mexico in August 1988; the U.S. would have qualified by finishing second behind either one. Now, a reasonable person might ask, “Why were the top two teams in CONCACAF at that time, Costa Rica and Mexico, scheduled to face off in a preliminary round where only one might advance?” This matchup was certainly of great convenience to the Yanquis, who drew the Jamaicans. Those pairings would have been a CONCACAF matter — not a FIFA matter, and they were nothing a few million Swiss francs couldn’t help arrange.
From CONCACAF’s inception, Mexico had dominated the Confederation competitively, commercially and ethically. Is it any surprise that Maradona’s “Hand of God” goal took place at Estadio Azteca, the beating heart of regional football matters since its christening in May 1966? Yet this most CONCACAFkaesque of goals and The Cachirules Affair combined to prove something of a swan song. Jack Warner’s ascension, starting in 1990, and the rise of U.S. soccer, starting in 1989, changed the balance of regional football powers forever. Which is to say, the fucked up nature of CONCACAF was no longer the province of Mexico alone.