From the outside looking in, most don't appreciate how hard it is to qualify for the World Cup from the South American region.
A key date is 1996, when the current format was introduced. Previously, the continent's 10 nations had been divided into two or three groups. It was a short process -- and since the continent's regional tournament, the Copa América, has no need for qualification, it meant that in between the few competitive games, there were gaps of years.
Thirteen years ago, for the '98 World Cup qualifiers, the nations were put in one big group, all playing each other home and away in a marathon that finally put the South Americans on par with the European national teams. With those changes came a calendar of regular competitive matches and thus the opportunity to hire and retain a good coach, to keep a team together and grow in terms of confidence and tactical sophistication.
The consequence of this change on the fortunes of the traditionally lesser nations has been quite remarkable. Ecuador, once merely making up the numbers, is now a serious force. Venezuela is now taken seriously for the first time.
Unlike Europe, in South America's World Cup qualifiers, nowadays there isn't a single away game in which the road side can take the field certain it'll emerge with the three points. The degree of difficulty is far greater than before -- which means that when a big side gets itself in trouble, it's no easy task to haul itself out of the mud.
Argentina's struggle to make next summer's World Cup has a number of points in common with Brazil's nerve-racking campaign to qualify for Japan and South Korea in 2002. A glance at the two teams' away records makes it clear: Argentina has lost its last four games, including all three under
In countries of such footballing tradition, every defeat, each substandard display sets off a mini-crisis. At these times, having so many players to choose from can be a curse. A team can be undermined by its own strength in depth, as the call goes out for changes and more changes. The names on the team sheet keep getting swapped around and the team is never formed.
In the 18 games of that '02 campaign, Brazil used a total of 62 players -- and there were moments when the desperation was such that it would have liked to send all 62 out onto the field at the same time.
Eight years later, Brazil has cruised to a place in South Africa. Coach
It's often forgotten that, for Brazil and Argentina, it's a comparatively recent development to call up players for the national team who are based abroad. Argentina made an exception in 1978 for
In such proud footballing cultures, it's still not easy to become accustomed to the fact that almost all the best players are making their livings in Europe. A self-defense mechanism, which comes to the surface in troubled times, is the view that the foreign-based legion are a bunch of mercenaries. They have turned their backs on their native culture in search of money. They aren't really interested in playing for the national team; it's the locally based players who will sweat blood for the cause.
It's a pile of nonsense -- though perhaps it would be too much to expect coherence from nationalist deliriums. South America's foreign-based stars make sacrifices to play for their national teams that many Europeans wouldn't dream of doing. They travel huge distances, at times even upgrading their plane ticket out of their own pockets, all the while aware that they run the risk of being booed if results are unkind.
The home-based players, meanwhile, have, in many cases, returned from Europe after an unsuccessful spell -- or, if they're on the way up, are waiting for an opportunity to go. Earlier this year, Brazilian sports daily
There are exceptions to the rule, but in general, the best players will be drawn to Europe. This, after all, is professional sports, and its practitioners will follow the money. But in the grip of nationalism, such basic facts can sometimes be forgotten.
I found myself shaking my head in the press conference thinking that Leão had just blown his job. But the reaction of the local journalists was overwhelmingly positive, and so was that of the public -- right up until the moment when Leão's new team starting playing in São Paulo against Peru. It came up with 90 minutes of soccer no one could applaud. A Peru side lacking form and confidence came away with a comfortable 1-1 draw -- and the next time Brazil took the field for a World Cup qualifier,
Maradona is in danger of making a similar mistake. This week, his team of entirely home-based players will take on Ghana in a friendly in what could well be a distraction from the task of sorting out his side for the coming World Cup qualifiers against Peru and Uruguay. His team for those games could include even more players based in Argentina.
He already has defied logic in the last two rounds by selecting
Brazil's experience in '02 shows that things get much easier once the finish line is crossed. The pressure of the qualification campaign is removed, and having to name a World Cup squad of 23 concentrates the mind and cuts back on the temptation to make endless changes. After struggling mightily to book its place, Brazil went on to win the World Cup. Argentina could do something similar. But first, of course, it has to qualify.