Envisioning a CONMEBOL-CONCACAF Merger

The 2024 Copa América is in full flight, as the semifinals have now been set. The ongoing competition, hosted by the United States, is the second (after 2016) to feature six CONCACAF invitees, bringing the total number of participating teams to 16. It comes after the North/Central American confederation signed a strategic collaboration agreement with South America’s CONMEBOL, which organizes the Copa América, last year.

While this year’s tournament has been riddled with controversy, one thing is clear: a permanent merger between the two confederations would be the best thing for football in the Americas. Here’s what that would look like.

A Reformed Copa América

Copa América’s name literally translates to “America Cup” and yet, the vast majority of the region’s nations have never been represented in the competition. Instead, CONCACAF members compete for the biennial Gold Cup, a tournament that has minimal prestige and is dominated by the United States and Mexico. Should the two confederations merge, the Copa América would become the premier continental competition for both North and South America.

Finding a Steady Competition System

Currently, the Copa América struggles with inconsistent organization. There have been five tournaments in the last nine years, with the USA and Brazil hosting two each. The number of participants has ranged from 10 to 16 in this time span. In this regard, the competition lags behind the EUROs and even AFCON.

Ideally, a reimagined Copa would take place every four years with no exceptions. Hosting rights would be decided via a bidding process and a selected host could not bid for the next two editions. Moreover, the tournament would always feature 16 teams split into four groups of four teams each, much like this year.

Unlike this year’s competition, however, the knockout stage format would ensure no rematches take place before the final. Defending champions Argentina and debutants Canada will clash in the semifinals, having already contested the opening group stage match, a clear flaw of the current system. Both nations advanced past the quarterfinals after a penalty shootout, which occurred immediately after 90 minutes of play. The reintroduction of extra time in the quarterfinal and semifinal is another necessary reform.

Merit-Based Qualification

Throughout its history as CONMEBOL’s flagship competition, the Copa América has featured all 10 of the confederation’s members, along with any special invitees. While the level of South American football is generally high, automatic qualification lowers the quality of the tournament. Bolivia, for example, has won just one of 29 Copa América matches it has contested in the 21st century.

In the event of a merger, the 15 teams joining the hosts in any given Copa América would be determined by merit, mimicking the qualification system of other continental competitions. The 10 CONMEBOL sides would be joined by the 41 members of CONCACAF in a qualifying competition taking place across several international windows.

Excluding the automatically-qualified host nation, the Copa América qualifiers would have 10 groups of five teams each, organized in a double round robin on a home-and-away basis. The group winners would advance directly to the final tournament. Runners-up would move to a playoff round, where five two-legged ties determine the final qualifiers.

This format would make international football in the Americas more interesting, as it would regularly pit North and Central America against South America and big nations against small nations. The end result would be a Copa América that truly features the very best of the region.

Effect of a Merger on the World Cup

Both CONCACAF and CONMEBOL have flawed procedures in place to determine who qualifies for the FIFA World Cup. The problems are even more obvious with the World Cup’s forthcoming expansion to 48 teams.

South America’s qualification system is considered the most brutal in world football, with ten teams competing in one league table on a double round robin basis. The top six qualify for the World Cup, while one team enters the inter-confederation playoffs. While it’s entertaining for fans, this system is time-consuming and physically taxing for the participants. Each team plays 18 matches (most of them against world-class opposition) across two years. CONMEBOL’s low membership count makes for repetitive fixtures every qualification cycle as well.

CONCACAF’s qualifying system for the 2022 World Cup was similar to CONMEBOL’s, with the strongest teams entering in the eight-team final round, also organized in a single table. There’s been a complete upheaval for 2026, as the three North American sides have qualified directly as co-hosts. It remains to be seen how the confederation’s six World Cup slots will be distributed for future 48-team tournaments.

A pan-American confederation with its 51 members would have a multitude of options for a World Cup qualifying format. The next two World Cups have the added caveat of automatic qualification (USA, Mexico and Canada in 2026 and Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay in 2030). Regardless, a merger is highly unlikely to happen this decade, so any major shifts would occur ahead of the 2034 World Cup at the earliest.

New-Look Qualifiers

For the purpose of this article, let’s assume no automatic entrants from the Americas. Given the current regulations, it can be assumed that a merged confederation would have an allotment of 12 automatic World Cup slots and two inter-confederation playoff slots. So as to reward high-achieving teams and reduce the number of qualifying matches they have to play, the top 23 nations by coefficient would advance directly to the second stage of qualifiers.

The remaining 28 countries would enter the first stage, where they’d be drawn into nine groups (eight groups of three teams and one group of four). These would operate on a double round robin basis, with teams playing either four or six games. Group winners would advance to the second stage. The summer break during which Copa América takes place could be used for these early qualifying matches, provided participants are not involved in the tournament.

The second stage would then begin in the first international window of the following calendar year (the one preceding the World Cup). This timing would mirror that of UEFA qualifying. The format would be similar to UEFA’s new system as well, with the 32 competing sides split into eight groups of four teams each. Yet another double round robin would send the eight group winners through to the World Cup.

The eight group runners-up from the second stage would enter a playoff round, where four two-legged ties would determine the final direct qualifiers. The four losing playoff teams would be drawn into two more ties, which would provide CONMEBOL-CONCACAF’s two inter-confederation playoff participants. This new format would ensure that a side competing in every possible phase, from the first stage to the inter-confederation playoff, would compete in a maximum of 18 qualifying matches, the amount currently played by all CONMEBOL members. Not only is this scenario highly unlikely, it could theoretically happen to just one team per cycle.

Potential Other Competitions

In a world where everything mentioned in this article comes true, several question marks remain. Namely, the Gold Cup would become essentially meaningless and could potentially be abolished. If CONCACAF wanted to keep its continental tournament alive, it would have to organize it in the year following the World Cup, the only gap currently existing on the international football calendar. The cup would have to be scaled down, with qualifiers likely done away with altogether. An eight-team championship remains a possibility.

A full-scale merger would open the door to a new-look Nations League, similar to that existing in Europe. What throws this into doubt is CONMEBOL’s plans to enter its teams in the UEFA Nations League. In 2021, the two confederations reached an agreement on the matter, with plans to introduce South American sides into the competition starting in 2024. That being said, the draw for the upcoming Nations League has already been made, and it features exclusively UEFA member nations.

Should the CONMEBOL-UEFA collaboration come to fruition, CONCACAF could simply continue to operate its own competition, which it has organized since 2019. Unlike the European version, though, the CONCACAF Nations League currently operates on an annual basis. This would have to change in order to accommodate the new Copa América qualifiers.

In short, a merger between CONMEBOL and CONCACAF does not have to destroy either confederation’s individual identity. CONMEBOL is free to integrate into the UEFA Nations League and CONCACAF can continue to organize its own Nations League and/or the Gold Cup. When it comes to major competitions, though, a permanent collaboration would be in the best interests of both confederations, as well as the 51 national associations in the Americas. It’s a long ways off, but a merger will make football in the region the best it can possibly be.


Main Image: “Fase grupo | Fecha 1: Chile Sub 20 1-1 Bolivia” by Fútbol Joven Chile via Flickr

Related articles



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Share article

Latest articles