What U.S. proved to the world with successful Copa America Centenario
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – A thick fog wafted off the burning meat and blew through the sweltering New Jersey afternoon. The parking lot outside the MetLife Stadium, a modern cathedral to worship at the nexus of commercialized sports and Capitalism, was lined with grills. A medium-sized farm's worth of animals was being cooked up for eager consumption.
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While the legion fans, overwhelmingly clad in Argentina's iconic white and light blue, waited for their dinner to cook through, they danced to the thrum of drums. The big game, the final of the one-off Copa America Centenario between the world's top-ranked team and the defending champions from Chile, was a full three hours away. It was oppressively hot and humid.
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But here they all were, a crowd of more than 82,000 who would pack the stadium, somehow making this amorphous pile of concrete and steel and glass, plastered with branding on every flat surface, feel intimate.
They sang soulfully when their anthems rang out. The Chileans, as is their custom, belted out the second stanza acapella. In front of them, another tense Copa final would play out, which, like last year's regular edition of the tournament, would see Chile beat Argentina on penalties after a scoreless game. For more than two hours, their trance never broke.
After the party in the lots, this was a fitting finale to a joyous tournament – followed by a drawn-out after-party between the lingering cars as some decided to grill and drink and play and dance some more while the snarled traffic crawled away.
Now consider that until late in 2015, it was uncertain if this centenary edition of the Copa would be taking place at all. A series of FBI raids and Department of Justice indictments had ravaged CONCACAF and CONMEBOL, the governing bodies that were teaming up to create this championship of the Western Hemisphere. U.S. Soccer had understandably grown reluctant to wade into this bloody and still shark-infested waters. It demanded assurances over transparency and accountability to even proceed. If it hadn't gotten them, the thing would surely have been canceled.
But U.S. Soccer was satisfied in the end. And what followed, on short notice, was perhaps the most successful soccer tournament of the summer – if not the best sports event outright.
"I think on every front it's been a tremendous success," U.S Soccer president Sunil Gulati, who is also a FIFA Council member and the chairman of the Centenario's Local Organizing Committee, told FOX Sports 1. "The attendance has been fantastic, a big shout out to the fans. The games on the field which we obviously can't control have been great. The organization's been top flight – the temporary fields that we laid in. So from all perspectives, I think, CONCACAF, CONMEBOL, the Local Organizing Committee, fans, players, it's been a big success."
Some self-congratulations were indeed in order. Because in spite of initial concerns over grotesquely inflated ticket prices, attendance was robust. Thanks to the supersized NFL stadiums used, in fact, a total of around 1.5 million tickets sold made this the best-attended Copa America ever. And that at ruinously expensive prices – there were few games where you could get into the building for less than $100 per person. Meanwhile, total viewership in the United States alone was more than 100 million.
The only significant issue was the lamentable p*** chant on goal kicks, originally employed by the Mexico fans – but which seems to have proliferated to other fans, rather than been eradicated. Then there were a few botched national anthems – when the wrong ones would blast from the speakers. But other than that and a few empty pockets of premium seating at games early on in the tournament and in the quarterfinal round, there were few problems. There was almost no crowd trouble to speak of, and little of it more serious than debris thrown onto the field.
That made for a stark contrast with the ongoing European Championship. While the soccer has at times been sparkling and entertaining over on the Old Continent, the tournament has been beset by hooliganism – both in the stadiums and out – friction with police, and illegal flares brought into and set off inside the stadiums. Then there are the factors outside of the organizers' and police's control, like the simmering threat of terrorism and a series of roiling standoffs between unions and public services.
Now consider the upcoming Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, which will seemingly be positive just by virtue of not being disastrous. The litany of challenges there is too lengthy to get into now. Suffice to say it is a sporting event anticipated with dread as much as excitement.
In that context, the United States has reaffirmed that it can put on a world-class soccer event, which we already knew from the 1994 men's and the 1999 and 2003 women's World Cups. But it bears repeating. After the American bid was controversially beaten out by Qatar for the 2022 World Cup hosting rights, it is widely expected that U.S. Soccer will go after the 2026 edition of the tournament.
On this subject, Gulati understandably plays coy. But he couldn't help but acknowledge how this successful Copa acted as a showcase. "We haven't decided if we're going to bid, but it sure doesn't hurt us for any competition we might want to host," he said. "And I think it shows again what the U.S. can do – in this case in a very short amount of time – that we can put on a magnificent event."
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer columnist for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.