There is more than one "C" in CONCACAF, but not one of them stands for controversy, confusion, chaos or corruption.
That doesn't mean the two-week, 10-nation CONCACAF Gold Cup that begins today will be free of incident, however. History says exactly the opposite.
The last time the North and Central American and Caribbean region's championship tournament was played in these parts, someone looted the Trinidad and Tobago team's Anaheim hotel and made off with $50,000 in cash and jewelry.
Organizationally, the tournament was a disaster, but perhaps things will go more smoothly in 1998 than they did in '96.
This championship should be played every four years, preferably, as now, immediately before a World Cup. Instead, it seems to take place whenever organizers feel like it.
That lessens its importance, but at least this time around there is the presence of four France '98 teams--world champion Brazil, Jamaica, Mexico and the United States--to give it spice. On paper, those are the four that should reach the semifinals at the Los Angeles Coliseum on Feb. 10 and 12.
The other participants--Costa Rica, Cuba, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Trinidad and Tobago--appear merely to be along for the ride.
The inclusion of the Cubans, who play the United States in Oakland this afternoon, conjures all sorts of possibilities, however. What, for instance, if some of Cuba's soccer players follow the lead of their baseball brethren and defect? It could happen.
NO NET GAIN
In the century or more that organized soccer has been played in the United States, the country has so far failed to produce a single field player of true world class.
In one area, however, American players rank with any in the world. Goalkeepers Kasey Keller, Brad Friedel and Juergen Sommer, the Nos. 1, 2 and 3 keepers, respectively, on the U.S. national team, can hold their own with anyone and would appear to be a lock for the three goalkeeping spots on the France '98 roster.
Tony Meola, the starter on the 1990 and 1994 U.S. World Cup teams, didn't see it that way and managed to earn an invitation to the U.S. training camp in Florida last month. He even sat on the bench as the backup last Sunday in the U.S. team's 1-0 victory over Sweden.
"My goal is to be part of another World Cup," Meola said.
Countered Steve Sampson, the U.S. coach: "The door is wide open for the No. 3 spot. I don't care who plays. All I care is that people are match fit, sharp and they give an effort every day. And Tony has done that. All the possibility in the world is still open for him for the World Cup."
As soon as the Sweden game was over, however, the door swung shut in a hurry.
Meola was not named to the U.S. roster for the Gold Cup. Instead, Friedel, sold in December by Major League Soccer's Columbus Crew to Liverpool in the English Premier League for $1.6 million, will start the first two games. Keller, who starts for Premier League Leicester City and who shut out English champion Manchester United, 1-0, on Saturday, will be flown in from England for the second two.
The Meola threat might have helped hasten Sommer's recent decision. Last week, the former Indiana keeper abandoned the bench at Queen's Park Rangers of the English first division to join Columbus as Friedel's replacement.
By playing in MLS, Sommer will be more readily available to the national team and, equally important, more visible to Sampson, thereby helping him clinch the No. 3 spot.
All of which must leave Meola, of the New York-New Jersey MetroStars, feeling that he has made no net gain at all.
No matter who is in the nets for the U.S., it is going to be nearly impossible to stop Brazil from scoring should the teams meet in the Gold Cup.
Embarrassed at finishing second behind Mexico in the 1996 tournament and furious at having won only the bronze in the 1996 Atlanta Games, Brazilian Coach Mario Lobo Zagallo has brought a far more powerful team to this tournament.
To begin with, there is World Cup '94 winner and 1994 FIFA world player of the year Romario at striker, along with another top-class forward, Edmundo.
Another player to keep an eye on is 20-year-old midfielder Denilson, currently playing on loan for Sao Paulo after being bought by Real Betis in Spain for a reported world-record $35 million.
Ronaldo, the two-time FIFA world player of the year, will not play in the Gold Cup. The striker is going through a troubling time at Inter Milan and has not scored a goal since Dec. 6.
That fact has not been lost on the club's owner, Massimo Moratti, an Italian industrialist who splashed out almost $30 million to buy the 20-year-old Brazilian from Barcelona.
"Ronaldo is not himself--he's playing badly," Moratti said last week. "I don't know what his problem is, but he's certainly got one."
So do any of the Gold Cup teams that have to face Brazil.
THE MEXICAN EQUATION