All over South America, international squads are being called up as the continent's World Cup qualification campaign resumes after a 5½-month break. The 11th and 12th games for each nation are coming up in late March, followed by two more in June, two in September and the final two in October.
So the marathon competition is now entering the home stretch. There are no prizes for finishing first -- the only objective is to be in the top four (the fifth-placed team will play off against the fourth-place team from CONCACAF), which means that leader Paraguay is sitting very pretty.
Six points clear at the top of the table, it could lose its next two games and could be overtaken only by Brazil on goal difference. Paraguay faces difficult two difficult trips in the next few days -- first to Uruguay on March 28, then to face Ecuador on April 1 at the altitude of Quito. But it can travel secure in the knowledge that two losses will hardly dent its chances of making it through to a remarkable fourth consecutive World Cup. Just two victories in its remaining eight games should be enough to ensure Paraguay's presence in South Africa.
Second-place Brazil looks set to qualify -- and preserve its record of being the only country to have appeared at every World Cup -- with few alarms. Its next match, at Ecuador, is tricky. Brazil lost on its visit to Quito in the previous two campaigns. But then comes the home game against last-place Peru, which has scored once and conceded 17 goals in its five previous away games. It's a golden opportunity for Brazil to end a run which has seen it draw its three previous home games 0-0.
Argentina is just a point behind, but has many questions, including: How will
Level on points with Argentina, and three ahead of the team in fifth, is Chile, which has a great chance of making it to its first World Cup since 1998. Under Argentine coach
So far in the campaign, Chile has more victories than either Brazil or Argentina. These next two games will be hard-fought -- away to Peru (which is unbeaten in Lima) and then at home to Uruguay. But the Chileans can take heart from their run-in. After these two rounds, their remaining home games are against Bolivia, Venezuela and Ecuador, and they should be capable of picking up plenty of points.
Peru and Bolivia would seem to have too much ground to make up. The Peruvians would need a mathematical miracle, while even winning all remaining home games is unlikely to be enough for the Bolivians. Without some victories on the road -- an unlikely prospect -- Bolivia cannot hope to pick up enough points to haul it into contention.
Which leaves four countries in the fight. Uruguay is in pole position. It holds two advantages. First, it's currently in fifth, a point ahead of the team below. Second, with its phalanx of strikers, it has scored more goals than any other team in the field, giving it a goal difference that could well be worth an extra point if it goes to the wire. More than half its goals came while taking full advantage of home bankers against Bolivia and Peru. In the tight matches, its scoring power hasn't been very explosive, and an awkward run-in should provide it with plenty of tight games.
Uruguay surely will feel the pressure from Ecuador which, after a disastrous start, has pulled itself back into contention. It trails Uruguay by a point, and could even be in front -- but its six-game unbeaten run came to a halt in the last round at Venezuela, when captain
These next two rounds are vital. Ecuador is at home to Brazil and Paraguay, teams with a traditional dislike of altitude. Maximum points would put Ecuador's sights not just on the playoff, but on one of the top four slots. But if Ecuador slips up, that will give heart to the two teams below: Colombia, a point behind, and Venezuela, which trails by two.
Venezuela is the only South American nation never to have made it to a Word Cup, and a run of four successive defeats would seem to have ensured that it will not break the spell in 2010. But then it came from behind to beat Ecuador last October, and morale has been boosted by its Under-20 side's first-ever qualification for the U-20 World Cup.
Colombia has gone an extraordinary five rounds without a goal -- but soccer thrives on optimism, and in its last performance, a comfortable scoreless draw at Brazil, it found a level of performance that leaves it with a slender dream to hang onto. If it can hit that level consistently, there may be an outside chance of qualification -- especially since its next game is at home to Bolivia.
Venezuela travels to Argentina, and will need to spoil Maradona's party with at least a draw to have any hope. Defeat with honor is not an option. Then, in the second of the forthcoming games, the two neighbors meet. It's unlikely that either Colombia or Venezuela will be in South Africa next year. It's impossible for both of them to be there. The winner of their clash on March 31 will retain a slight possibility. The loser better think of building for the future.