There are few competitions where the traditional war cry of slow-starting teams everywhere, "It’s a marathon, not a sprint” fits better than South American’s long drawn out World Cup qualifying tournament. This cycle's edition, which kicks off on Thursday, seems set to be as grueling, and dramatic, as ever–not least because of the absence of a number of the continent’s star players from the early rounds.
Whereas European teams will play 10–or in some cases, eight–group games to qualify for Russia 2018, South American sides will do battle across a sprawling, 10-team competition. The structure, in place since 1996, has brought clear benefits to football in the region, guaranteeing regular fixtures, and just as importantly, regular income, and allowing traditional minnows such as Ecuador, which has qualified for three out of the last four World Cups, and Venezuela, which famously beat Argentina during qualifying for Brazil 2014, to make startling progress.
And even if, on paper at least, the gulf in class between the likes of Brazil and Argentina and say, Bolivia, remains vast, there is always the great leveler of altitude. Few teams will look forward to an away trip to cities such as Quito or La Paz with much relish–an Argentina side containing Lionel Messi, Carlos Tevez and Javier Mascherano lost 6-1 in the Bolivian capital in 2009.
The good, the bad and the ugly of the competitive nature of South American soccer was revealed in all its glory at last summer’s Copa America. Home side Chile occasionally produced some marvelous, flowing, football on the way to lifting the trophy; Argentina struggled to live up to its favorite status; Brazil was knocked out by lowly Paraguay, and a number of matches threatened to descend into all-out brawls.
If World Cup qualifying is half as explosive as that, then South American fans are in for a treat. And the race to Russia has been given added spice by the absence of a number of the continent’s best players from the early rounds.
Brazil, in particular, will be looking forward to its opening game against Chile in Santiago with apprehension. The talismanic Neymar, scorer of a preposterous 46 goals in 67 games for his country, is suspended from that match and the home fixture against Venezuela a few days later due to his Copa America actions, and serious doubts remain over the team’s attacking power in the absence of its only world-class star.
Zenit striker Hulk, who scored in a 4-1 win over a disheveled looking U.S. in September, will play up front, supported by a phalanx of busy attacking midfielders that is likely to include Willian, Oscar and Douglas Costa, the latter of which is in terrific form for Bayern Munich this season.
Yet Brazil looked woefully short of ideas without Neymar in that Copa America loss to Paraguay, and it is surely a telling indication of the paucity of Dunga’s attacking options that Santos striker Ricardo Oliveira, a gifted forward in his prime but now 35, has been called up to the squad.
If there is one consolation for Brazil ahead of the Chile clash, it is that La Roja will also be without a key figure–though Charles Aranguiz is hardly the headline maker that Neymar is. The Bayer Leverkusen man, nominally a defensive midfielder but equally adept at getting forward and supporting the attack, showed his worth at Copa America with a string of intelligent, energetic displays, and is a vital cog in coach Jorge Sampaoli’s diminutive (rather than big) red machine.
And then there is Messi.
The fact that the world’s greatest player and Ballon d'Or favorite will miss not only the first two qualifying fixtures against Ecuador and Paraguay, but also possibly his team’s crunch clashes at home to Brazil and away to Colombia in November, adds another subplot to the soap opera of this talented, aging Argentinian generation’s attempts to lift a major trophy.
Despite a couple of scintillating performances, notably in the 6-1 romp over Paraguay in the semifinal, the doubts that seem to endlessly dog Messi when on international duty were heard as loudly as ever during the Copa America–“We have the best player in the world, one who can go and score four goals against Real Sociedad, and then he comes here and doesn't score at all,” said Diego Maradona after the tournament–and now coach Gerardo Martino must find a way of arming a side without Messi for the first few games, then presumably tearing his plans up and starting again when the Barcelona star returns.
It is a considerable tactical challenge, especially for a man who is far from a unanimous choice among Argentina fans. To add to the fun, Martino will also have to make do without Sevilla’s Éver Banega and Manchester United’s Marcos Rojo, both injured, in the opening rounds.
South America’s other traditional big hitters have their problems too. Colombia was punchless at Copa America, with James Rodriguez (also currently carrying an injury) looking like a shadow of the player who inspired during the World Cup in Brazil, and Radamel Falcão continued to struggle. Rebuilding Uruguay, meanwhile, will be missing the suspended Luis Suarez, Edinson Cavani and Jorge Fucile in its opening game against Bolivia.
(Suarez will miss Uruguay's first four qualifiers due to suspension stemming back to his bite of Giorgio Chiellini in the 2014 World Cup; Cavani will miss the first two qualifiers.)
With the big boys arguably looking weaker than usual, countries such as Peru, which finished third at the Copa America, and Ecuador, who failed to get out of the group stage in Chile and will be without Enner Valencia when taking on Argentina, will feel that they have a real chance of making it to the World Cup, especially with the team that finishes fifth potentially also booking its ticket to Russia via playoff against the winner of the Oceania qualifying competition.
As if the on-field tension was not enough, no South American soccer competition would be complete without a little behind-the-scenes intrigue. There are few parts of the world where the FBI FIFA investigation and ensuing national police operations have created greater waves, with a number of senior CONMEBOL and local executives coming under scrutiny.
Former Brazilian FA boss Jose Maria Marin and ex-CONMEBOL president Eugenio Figueredo were arrested as part of the original FBI swoop in Zurich in May, while another former CONMEBOL president, Nicolas Leoz, was also indicted on corruption charges. Carlos Chavez, the head of the Bolivian FA and CONMEBOL treasurer, was arrested in July, while Marin’s successor, Marco Polo Del Nero, presumably fearing arrest himself, has refused to leave Brazil since the scandal broke. He is not the only senior executive who has decided to keep a low profile. There was a notable lack of the region’s top brass present at the Copa America this summer.
With a more level playing field, that intense marathon structure, and some fearsome local rivalries–not to mention a backdrop of compelling political drama–the South American World Cup qualifying tournament looks set to once again provide thrilling, vibrant entertainment.