Football makes the world go 'round


If you thought the summer would be boring without a football World Cup or a European Championship, you were wrong. The past several weeks offered three continental tournaments (African Cup of Nations, Copa América and Gold Cup) one global event (Women’s World Cup), plus the UEFA European Under-21 Championship with altogether 180 matches among 88 national teams.

While we elaborated on the Women’s World Cup in our previous article, now we look into the recent three major continental competitions.

All the three tournaments saw some form of innovation: the Gold Cup and the African Cup of Nations (AFCON) have both been expanded to include more teams than ever before, and the Gold Cup was organized for the first time partly in the Caribbean, with some matches played in Costa Rica and Jamaica. VAR was used variably: the Gold Cup ignored it and will use it only in its next edition in 2021, while the Africa Cup introduced it only from its quarter-final rounds. The Copa had it all throughout the tournament: many will remember how Brazil had three goals disallowed by VAR in the group stages, making a goalless draw with Venezuela – decisions booed by the audience but later all approved by Brazil’s coach, Tite.  

In our chart, for reference, there are data on other continental tournaments, too: the Asian Cup held in January 2019, and the last European Championship in 2016.

Copa América – the oldest cup with the fewest teams and few surprises

The oldest football competition of national teams in the world held its 46th edition this summer (the first cup was organized in 1916 in Argentina, as part of the commemorations of the centennial of Argentina's independence). This time, hosts Brazil won the tournament, beating Peru 3-1 in the final, and finishing the tournament with a 13-1 goal difference in six matches. The game in the Maracanã in front of 69,981 fans was also broadcasted in 180 countries.

Brazil collected their first major trophy in 12 years, and their 9th Copa title. Interestingly, the Copa was the only tournament this summer, where the host nation could win the trophy. Actually, Brazil could win all five editions when they have hosted the Copa, nevertheless, they still lag behind Uruguay and Argentina, who won the cup 15 and 14 times, respectively.

The 26 matches were distributed among six stadiums, using the infrastructure from the 2014 FIFA World Cup and the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. The venues’ capacity (50-75,000) and relatively high ticket prices (the average ticket cost around EUR 50) meant that basically none of the matches witnessed a sell-out crowd and many recorded a utilization rate below 50 percent.

Interest from sponsors was also moderate compared to that for other major tournaments. The 2019 Copa América had four official sponsors, including Mastercard and Chinese consumer electronics company TCL, and two national sponsors, beer company Brahma and Brazilian airline Gol. The five technical sponsors included Adidas, sponsoring four nations, followed by Nike and Marathon with three each, and Puma and Italian brand Givova supporting one team each.

Regarding the game, Brazil’s less spectacular, but more modern, pressing style of football may have been a disappointment to some, but it proved to be efficient, also acknowledging that their success was reached without the injured Neymar.

Unfortunately, the tournament will be also remembered for Messi’s controversial red card in their third-place play-off against Chile, his follow-up "corruption" and “football was not fair with us” claims. And also for his ninth disappointment with Argentina, with no goal scored in any of the decisive games. As the next Copa América will be held in Argentina and Colombia in 2020, it may give Messi a chance to end his curse at his 10th and probably last try.

African Cup of Nations – Algeria outfoxes Senegal to end 29-year drought in scorching heat

Algeria won the 32nd edition of the Africa Cup of Nations, collecting their second trophy after their first triumph in 1990, when they hosted the tournament. The Desert Foxes beat Senegal 1-0 in the final, the same score the two registered when they met earlier in the group stage. The two teams also gave nine players to the CAF team of the tournament. The Cup brought some surprises – none of the semi-finalists of the previous competition made it to the top 4 this year. Hosts Egypt, the most successful nation in the Africa Cup of Nations history with seven trophies, were knocked out by South Africa in the last 16. The other two most successful teams in the cup's history, Cameroon and Ghana, were also eliminated in the last 16. 

This year’s AFCON introduced new elements, too. The expansion from 16 to 24 teams for the first time provided a debut for Madagascar, Mauritania and Burundi. Madagascar’s magic run has justified the expansion for many – they not only won their group, ahead of Nigeria, but managed to knock out DR Congo in the last 16, only to be stopped in the quarter-finals by Tunisia.

The other major change, moving the tournament from January/February to June/July for the first time, caused more controversy: the intense heat of around 35 degrees Celsius in the afternoons resulted not only in players being stretchered off during a game or others collapsing in training, but also lowering the intensity of the play. Indeed, in the group stages, matches played in the evenings ended with more than twice the number of goals than that seen in matches that took place in the afternoon.

A late switch in the host country did not help organizers either. Egypt was chosen to organize the competition only in November 2018, as the scheduled hosts Cameroon (also title holders) were deprived of hosting the Cup due to delays in infrastructure development and internal security issues. Initially, Egypt chose eight stadia to host the tournament, while in February 2019 it was cut to six, and in March, the venue in Port Said had to be replaced by yet another stadium in Cairo, due to problems at one of the main stands. The 74,000-capacity Cairo International Stadium hosted the matches of the home team and the final. On the other end, the stadia in Ismailia and Alexandria could seat less than 20,000 people.

With all that background, it is not surprising that the AFCON had the lowest average attendance and the lowest goals/match results for the three recent tournaments in question.

However, the organizers of this year's tournament could boast of an impressive set of sponsors. The cup had Total as its title sponsor (officially named the “Total Africa Cup of Nations”) – the French oil company having penned an 8-year sponsorship package with the Confederation of African Football (“CAF”) in 2016 to support 10 of CAF’s major competitions. Official sponsors included Visa, tire maker Continental, bookmaker 1XBET, French telecom giant Orange and American biotechnology company Gilead Sciences, with two regional sponsors, Yamaha and food producer Temmy's.

Gold Cup – least covered globally, with most goals per game

The 15th edition of the Gold Cup, organized for the national teams of North America, Central America and the Caribbean region, was hosted in the United States (with nine of the 15 stadia in the USA having a capacity over 60,00), and, for the first time, in the Caribbean, too: Costa Rica and Jamaica held double-headers in the first round of matches in the group stage. Also, for the first time, the tournament has been expanded from 12 to 16 teams.

American companies led the list of sponsors, including Nike, insurance provider Allstate and telecommunications company Sprint, along with Toyota, Valvoline, Scotiabank, Mexican Camarena Tequila and beer producer Modelo. 

This year’s Gold Cup was won by Mexico, who collected their 8th Gold Cup trophy, with a remarkable 16-4 goal difference in six matches. Taking into consideration the CONCACAF Championship — the direct predecessor of the Gold Cup, which was held ten times from 1963 to 1989 — Mexico now have altogether 11 continental tournament wins, five more than the US.

The tournament attracted an average of over 33,500 people per match, the highest among these summer competitions. Nevertheless, the three previous Gold Cups, all held in the US, registered higher average attendances (35,027 per match in 2017, 41,938 in 2015, and 36,288 in 2013), which seems to contradict the general perception of the growing popularity of “soccer in the US”. The highest Gold Cup final attendance figure was recorded in 1993: in the Estadio Azteca in Mexico City, hosts Mexico beat the USA in front of 130,000 people. The second highest final attendance was set in Pasadena’s Rose Bowl in 2011, where 93,420 people saw Mexico beat hosts USA once again. However, these records are unlikely to be ever broken, considering the capacities of more modern venues.

This time, Mexico beat old rivals USA 1-0 in the final in Chicago, in front of a crowd of 62,493, most of them supporting Mexico, and making the stadium seem more like Mexico City’s Estadio Azteca.

The very same day, some hours earlier, the American women’s national team won their 4th World Cup, in Lyon, France, in front of a crowd that was overpoweringly pro-American.