North and South America are coming together in 2024 for the Copa América tournament. But soccer on the American continent is normally divided into two main regions. The confederations of CONMEBOL and CONCACAF oversee and organize the game in South and North America, respectively. When it comes to the international game, each region has its own main competition. CONMEBOL’s Copa America, and CONCACAF’s Gold Cup. But there are plenty of differences between the two competitions.

The history of soccer in the new world

The Copa América dates back to 1916. That makes it the oldest competition of its type, that is still played, in the entire world. The Gold Cup, by contrast, has only been around since 1991. Even when you consider the competition it replaced, the CONCACAF Championship, which only began in 1963, the South American game had a large headstart on their northern neighbors.

While soccer in Mexico caught on and thrived relatively early, in the rest of North America and the Caribbean, the game remained either a niche sport or an underdeveloped one. South America on the other hand produced some of the early powerhouse teams that still hold that position today.

Differences in Gold Cup and Copa America formats

When you look at the nuts and bolts of how each tournament operates, there’s plenty of variance.

For one thing, the Copa América is usually played only every four years, offset with FIFA World Cup cycles, at the same time UEFA’s Euro tournament takes place. The Gold Cup however is played every two years. In addition to featuring what are generally considered to be stronger teams, this longer cycle also gives Copa América a higher prestige between the two.

The large disparity in the number of countries in each region affects things too. CONMEBOL only has ten members, while CONCACAF has 41. That means that, unlike Copa America, the Gold Cup does not feature every team in the region. This means teams need to qualify for the Gold Cup. Presently, the CONCACAF Nations League is the main qualifying tournament, with a separate qualifying taking place afterward for lower-placing teams.

Since 2019, the Gold Cup tournament has 16 teams participating. Copa America 2024 will also feature 16 teams (six members of CONCACAF). However, since 1975, the tournament usually features either 10 or 12 teams.

Gold Cup has used a knockout stage every year since it began. Copa, until 1975, utilized a single round-robin league setup without a knockout stage. Since then, it has almost exclusively used a knockout round, except for 1989 and 1991, which had a second group stage of four teams.

Comparing Silverware

Both competitions feature interesting trophy designs that share a similar feature.

The Copa América trophy is an ornate silver vase, which sits atop a tiered base containing the names/badges and years of each champion.

The Gold Cup trophy is a much more modern design, featuring a sharp, angular gold (naturally) cup. The current version has a small base with the engraved names of past champions. The pre-2013 version of the Gold Cup was a monstrous size but it has since been scaled down.

The epically-sized original (left), and current (right) Gold Cup trophies

CONMEBOL and CONCACAF cross-polination

While the two regions are separate, North American teams have played in the South American tournament, and vice versa.

Copa América often invites guest teams to bring the total number of competitors to 12. This makes three equal groups of four possible, resulting in a shorter group stage. Mexico has played in the Copa ten times, finishing second twice and third three times. Costa Rica, Jamaica, the USA, Panama, Haiti, and Honduras are other CONCACAF countries to have played in Copa América.

On the flip side, the Gold Cup has had several South American teams take part, including Brazil (second place twice and third once), as well as Colombia, Peru, and Ecuador. Originally this was done to beef up the quality of the tournament. But as CONCACAF has improved, no South American team has been invited since 2005.

While countries from both confederations have “medaled” in the other’s tournament, no team has ever won Copa América or the Gold Cup as a guest.

But there is also another wrinkle. The small nations of Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana are all located on the northern Caribbean coast of South America but are members of CONCACAF. Thus, they do not compete in Copa América.

Formerly both competitions would send their champions to the FIFA Confederations Cup. This quadrennial tournament would take place in the year before a World Cup, and feature the reigning champions of the six continental confederations. However, after the 2017 edition, the competition was discontinued.

The future of Gold Cup and Copa América

2024 brings us the second edition of Copa América to take place outside of South America, once again in the United States with the cooperation of CONCACAF.

There have long been calls from fans in the USA and Mexico to see their nations compete regularly in Copa América due to the higher level of competition. Suggestions have even been made for the two confederations to merge completely into one larger region.

But at least for the time being, things will likely return to regularly scheduled tournaments after the 2024 Copa America.

Photos: Imago.

Copa América 2024

Here are some resources to get you ready for Copa!
Copa América Schedule: Full schedule of all games for the 2024 tournament
How to watch: Information on where to find the games on TV and streaming
Key Dates: Learn All the important dates to mark on your calendar
Copa (United States of) América: South America's biggest tournament comes back to the USA
2024 Soccer Calendar: Get the lowdown on what will be a busy year in soccer