One of international football’s greatest tournaments will get underway shortly; a tournament that will last for nigh-on 18 months and will see some of the best national teams in the world football each other regularly in a highly competitive arena.
It may have been delayed by the pandemic, but the South American World Cup qualifiers will soon begin their lengthy and intense league process. As a result, arguably the greatest aspect of any qualifying process will start.
It is an 18-game marathon in which even the greatest have struggled. It is usually played out in front of some of the most passionate fans in the world – though that will understandably be different this time around – in some iconic stadiums. More often than not, the games feature two strong teams going up against each other in a high-stakes, high-quality clash.
To know what a World Cup is means to know that the qualifiers are already part of the tournament, and in South America this truism has created one of the most compelling, fascinating and keenly fought processes the World Cup has ever known.
With the impending expansion of the finals in 2026, this particular qualifying competition may be the last great one, where the ten nations in CONMEBOL fight it out for four automatic qualifying places. Next time around, six of the ten will qualify automatically and either the league marathon will be diminished or an alternative structure will need to be found.
For the South American nations, the current league format of qualifying has been of huge benefit since it was introduced in 1996 for the 1998 World Cup qualifiers. Competition has improved significantly in that time, with a raising of standards across the board. There are no easy matches, even against Venezuela, who are now the only South American nation yet to appear in the finals.
Like several others, they too have improved hugely as a result of the qualifying format. Prior to 1996, Venezuela had only ever won twice in World Cup qualifying history. In 2001 they won four qualifiers in a row, and in 2004 they prevailed 3-0 at Uruguay’s Centenario, becoming only the second visitors after Brazil to win a competitive match at that iconic venue.
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Venezuela’s increasingly positive results are no longer considered a shock. This impact is felt at youth level too, with a generation reaching the under-19 World Cup final in 2018.
There are a number of factors in the qualifying that have made such an improvement possible. It’s simple to identify mere regular competition as a factor, but to consider that in the past a nation such as Venezuela would be in a three or four-team group, with only a handful of crucial matches in a four-year cycle, the expansion to 18 matches is a clear benefit.
There would be years between competitive games, with qualification done and dusted within a few matchdays against opposition that was often so far out of reach as to be a whole different ball game.
Such a spell without competitive action for Brazil, Argentina or Uruguay was less of an issue. The traditional powers could qualify comfortably against weaker opposition and then play lucrative friendlies against stronger sides, testing their team and refining their tactics as they did.
The next tier of South American nations, such as Colombia, Chile, Paraguay and Peru, did not traditionally enjoy so much opportunity. For them, the high-profile friendlies were far more sporadic, far less frequent, and increasingly less beneficial; the opportunities to test themselves against a variety of stronger opposition less attainable. For the weakest, such chances were almost non-existent.
The new format gave these sides a boost. It wasn’t simply the chance for a greater number of regular fixtures, but it was who these games were against that mattered. Under the old format, the difference in quality was stark, enhanced by the split into groups with little prospect of qualification for many, should they be drawn against Brazil for instance.
Now, not only could they play more fixtures against some of the best national teams in the world, but also there were regular, competitive games against opposition that was more within reach. The prospect of recording an increasing number of competitive wins, the chance to measure progress in the undeniable truth of a league table, enabled standards to improve across the board while the promised land of World Cup qualification became an increasingly attainable ambition with a steady improvement in quality.
The guaranteed income of 18 regular competitive matches has also enabled teams to appoint better coaches and to invest in the development of their players, from youth levels through to the elite. In an age where even the strongest South American nations lose their players at ever earlier ages to Europe, working with national youth squads to develop a national identity has also contributed.
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When the best of those players make it to the senior side, this approach, this style of play, and the sense of the national team as the pride and pinnacle of the country’s football was ingrained.
The first big beneficiary of the new system was Ecuador, traditionally one of the weakest in the region. Previous strugglers, Ecuadorian football has improved through regular, intense, close competition to the point that they have been to several World Cups since the new format was introduced, having only won five qualifying matches before the change in format. What happened then for Ecuador can be seen in Venezuela now.
For those who do come through the closely fought qualifying, they are battle-hardened against real quality ahead of the World Cup proper – so much so that getting through the opening group at the finals is considerably easier for South American teams than qualifying in the first place.
There is an increased risk of good teams missing out, however, but to the outside observer this merely serves to enhance the allure. Almost every game has something of significance riding on it.
In sharp contrast to the often dull and straightforward European qualifiers, the rise of the smaller nations has benefitted the strongest too. For a clear example of this, just look at the performance of Uruguay in 2010. In the qualifying league they finished fifth best in South America, missing out on an automatic place at the South Africa World Cup by four points, and finishing a whole ten points behind leaders Brazil.
Uruguay only scraped into the playoff, beating out both Ecuador and Colombia by a single point, with Venezuela just one further point back. Uruguay then edged narrowly past Costa Rica in their intercontinental playoff to reach the finals, and it was there that the fifth-best team in South American became the fourth-best in the world. Uruguay, with Forlán, Suárez, Godín and Cavani, reached the semi-finals in their best World Cup performance for decades.
Would they have achieved what they did without such a strong test in qualifying? Diego Forlán is clear on the answer: “Three million [population of Uruguay] is half the population of Scotland. Uruguay are very, very proud of our achievements as a national team. But what helps us prepare apart from players, spirit and a manager? Playing some of the best teams in qualifying.”
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In a continent in which emotions and passions are expressed outwardly, football is the medium through which these passions are lived out. Every match is an experience, full of drama, colour and noise. On the field, too, the fact that every round of fixtures features a derby or intense rivalry of some sort merely serves to heighten the intensity being felt and heard from the stands. That this factor will be missing for the time being is a real shame, as adding this to the competitive nature of the contests produces an intoxicating mix.
There is an additional geographic factor to be thrown in as well. Bolivia play their home games in La Paz (12,000 feet above sea level), while Ecuador is only marginally easier in Quito (9,000 feet above sea level). When you have players flying in from across the continent, or directly from Europe as is most usually the case, to pitch up in La Paz it leads to complications that you just don’t see in European football. The lack of oxygen, coupled with a short time to acclimatise to the conditions, makes for a significant leveller, and more often than not an intriguing game.
While Ecuador have been a stronger side in recent times than Bolivia, and so may benefit more greatly, it is still true that the latter record some very good results when at home, perhaps unsurprisingly. While their away form reveals the true nature of Bolivian capabilities currently, the advantage they gain at home can assist in their competitiveness.
But perhaps more so, it leads to extreme difficulties for those travelling to Bolivia, and equally to Ecuador. Hot and humid can be a further test when visiting the coasts of Colombia and Venezuela, providing another tough hurdle to be overcome for some of the finest players in the world. Those who cope with these demands are further battle-hardened ahead of the challenges yet to come.
And yet this is likely the last of the great South American qualifying tournaments. With the World Cup expansion due to come in for the 2026 edition, seven of South America’s ten countries will qualify, potentially meaning a change of format is necessary; even if it is retained, the sense of jeopardy will be severely diminished.
The competition about to begin may be the last great South American qualifying marathon, the last to retain this intoxicating allure before expansion diminishes its value. It may be played out without the raucous support from the stands for the time being at least, but on the pitch it will be as intense and keenly fought as ever.
It is so far removed from the mundane and formulaic European qualifiers: highly competitive, intense atmospheres, great players, iconic venues, stunning kits. Each team has to be at its best in every match – there are few one-sided scores – and lost ground is hard to pick up. It is utterly compelling, epic and enthralling, and wholly worth following.
By Aidan Williams @yad_williams