Orlando (AFP) – “The United States could host the World Cup tomorrow,” FIFA president Gianni Infantino said recently.
But less than one week into the Copa America Centenario, being held across the US, it is clear that putting on a successful major international football tournament requires much more than just having lots of big stadiums, airports and hotels.
Attention has been focused on some high-profile, embarrassing gaffes, particularly two separate national anthem mix-ups, but complaints have also focused on the choice of kick-off times, the travel itineraries and the general atmosphere around the tournament.
Certainly to say that mainstream America has been caught up in ‘Copa fever’ would be a gross exaggeration.
Television network Fox boasted that the opening game between the hosts and Colombia drew over 1.5 million viewers but that is less than half of one percent of the population and well below the levels of most major sports events on US television.
Not surprisingly, Spanish language network Univision has performed better, with the network saying they averaged 2.9 million viewers over the opening weekend, which they said was 14 percent higher than their figures for the group stage of the last World Cup.
The level of attendance at games has been mixed, but the age-old problem of soccer in the States remains — the choice of large American football venues for games means that television viewers see lots of empty seats.
On Tuesday, there were over 20,000 empty seats as the hosts beat Costa Rica 4-0 in Chicago. A 39,642 crowd wasn’t particularly bad but Soldier Field has space for 61,500 capacity.
Neither of the two games held so far in Orlando’s 65,000 capacity Citrus Bowl managed to even be a third full.
– ‘Crazy’ scheduling –
The first of those, Saturday’s Costa Rica v Paraguay group game, was also played in intense afternoon heat, despite the fact that such weather is entirely predictable in June in Central Florida.
“It was crazy to play at the time we played,” Paraguay’s Argentine coach Ramon Diaz said.
“I would have liked them (the organisers) to take into consideration the players themselves, they are the main part of the show after all,” he added, saying he had “never” experienced a game in such conditions.
Travel has also been an issue. Uruguay coach Oscar Tabarez has complained about his team having to play in Arizona and Philadelphia and then fly back to the West Coast for their final group game near San Francisco – all within eight days.