The decision to remove the Belmopan Bandits from the 2014-15 edition of the CONCACAF Champions League may have been the right one, but it could've been handled better.
CONCACAF's relatively new administration missed an opportunity to show it's different from the past regime with its handling of the removal of Belize's representative in the CONCACAF Champions League.
The name 'Champions League' explains the concept. Pit various champions against each other...in a league. But in the past five competitions, Belize hasn't been able to put forth a representative, a streak that will continue this year after the Belmopan Bandits were removed from the competition.
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The confederation announced the decision in a news release sent at 6:10 p.m. ET on Aug. 12 - a week after the tournament started and nine days before the Bandits were set to host their first game of the competition. It would've been the first time in history that Belize - a tiny but growing English-speaking country in Central America just south of Mexico on the Caribbean Sea - hosted a Champions League match. In the first tournament under the current format, the Hankook Verdes played their home match in Guatemala, losing both legs by a 6-0 margin.
Each year since, Belize's Champions League spot has been awarded to the Central American federation with the team that advanced the furthest in the previous edition, as there are no stadiums in the country that meet CONCACAF standards.
This year was supposed to be different. After the national team qualified for and played in its first Gold Cup, the Football Federation of Belize requested funds from FIFA to improve FFB Stadium in hopes of hosting matches. A FIFA spokesperson confirmed to Goal USA that the governing body has contributed more than $2.3 million to various programs over the course of four FIFA Goal programs and also through a benefit from FIFA’s Programme for Less Privileged Member Associations, though not all of that money went to the stadium updates. FIFA funding was used to update lighting, stands and locker rooms among other improvements.
What was not improved, or at least not quickly enough, was the actual pitch at FFB Stadium. Everyone, including FFB President Ruperto Vicente in a letter to CONCACAF President Jeffrey Webb, agrees that the pitch wasn't ready in time. That in itself is puzzling, as one would expect nearly a year should be enough time to prepare a stadium. FIFA's General Regulations for FIFA Development Programmes require associations to seek at least three proofs of offer from different contractors and also require a final report when projects are finianced at the level they were in Belize, but that paperwork shouldn't have taken months.
The issue is not whether or not the decision was the right one. The pitch appeared to be unplayable the last time it was seen in local media reports. In fact, CONCACAF may have been too lenient with the Belizian federation. The stadium inspection was delayed on a number of occasions, and the deadline for the pitch to be compliant was also extended. In previous editions, Belize's entry was ceded to a Central American cohort before the draw. This time it looked like there would finally be resolution.
CONCACAF could totally be in the right, but who would know? Aside from the release, it's been silence from Webb and Vice President Enrique Sanz, while Herediano prepares to host Metapan on Thursday. No explanation as to why the Bandits can't utilize an alternate venue as the Verdes did. No word regarding concerns about timing. No word about how inspections are conducted. No matter what the logic, booting a team from a competition that is in progress is not a good look and only perpetuates the sloppy image of the confederation many harbor.
When transparency is lacking, conspiracy abounds. Surely Herediano can put a better side out in the competition and can also draw bigger crowds to stadia home and away. Is that motivation for the confederation to make this decision? It's unlikely, but it's the kind of theory that gets legs when it's not chopped down.
Of course, the Bandits themselves are the ones who suffer from the decision. Short of getting horticulture training, there's little more the players could do. They won the league, played friendlies against clubs in Mexico to stay fresh and had no reason to believe they wouldn't get a chance to showcase their skills in front of thousands who otherwise would have no way to see them.
When asked for comment, the Bandits referred Goal USA to the FFB, which referred to news releases. CONCACAF officials told Goal that attempts are being made to have Webb and Sanz available for comment. CONCACAF Watch will be updated if new information is presented.
Webb and Sanz are busy men with many responsibilities both professional and personal. They have come in and inspired confidence from fans in the region hoping the pair doesn't run CONCACAF in the corrupt, shadowy fashion predecessors Jack Warner and Chuck Blazer did. The decision to remove the Bandits from the CCL may have been totally necessary, but the manner in which it took place will remind fans of that dark era. CONCACAF must continue to build on the foundation it has laid since last year's Integrity Committee report release.
- CCL matches - MLS and Liga MX teams should be able to take care of their opposition this week, though a poor pitch and an attack that fired in plenty of shots, though none successful, in its first match might see Alpha United push the Portland Timbers. The match of the week might be Honduras' Real Espana, which was listless against Pachuca in its first match, looking to change its fortunes against Guatemalan club Muncipal.
- Women's Caribbean Cup - The women's Caribbean Cup, which will send its top four teams to CONCACAF qualifying for the 2015 Women's World Cup, begins Tuesday. We featured a few teams getting a helping hand from the U.S. in last week's CONCACAF Watch.
- U-20 Women's World Cup - Two CONCACAF teams, the United States and Canada, advanced to the quarterfinals, but both were bounced in that round. The U.S. ladies lost to North Korea on spot kicks, and Canada dropped a 2-0 result to Germany.
- Olimpia struggles - The Honduran giant's competition has continued improving, and the season has started with a stutter. A draw Sunday means the Lions have two points from three matches while Montagua and Real Espana are the only Honduran teams undefeated through three rounds.