Stepping back into the stadium after a big game, I often find strange and poignant moments. The radio report has been filed, the press conferences are over and, save a little bit of activity in the press box and from maintenance staff, the place is empty. The lights will soon be switched off and the stadium has the aspect of a tired giant preparing for sleep. The seething emotion it held inside itself just a short time ago has now dissipated.
But last Wednesday in Montevideo, Uruguay, it had not dissipated at all. It had just moved from the Centenario stadium across the other side of the park, to the main thoroughfare, the Avenida 18 de Julio. I walked back to town along the avenue after Uruguay had sealed the 32nd and final berth at next summer's World Cup with a 2-1 aggregate win over Costa Rica with a big smile on my face, witnessing scenes of wild celebration.
After missing out on five of the previous eight World Cups, the tournament's first-ever winners had made sure of their presence in South Africa next year. Uruguay only has a population of some 3.2 million, but it seemed as if all of them were to be found on Avenida 18 de Julio, bounding up and down in the back of pickup trucks or singing their hearts out on the sidewalk.
As I wandered back to my hotel, I dwelt on the extraordinary power of the World Cup -- I don't believe there's another sports event on the planet with the same power of representation. But also I thought about the value of the qualifying competition -- if claiming a place in South Africa were easy, it wouldn't be celebrated with the explosion of joy taking place in front of me in Montevideo.
Uruguayans have grown accustomed to doing things the hard way in qualifying, to spending the last few months of the process with a calculator in one hand and the phone number of a cardiologist in the other. These celebrations, then, weren't only a tribute to the force of the World Cup. They were also a recognition of the dramatic and competitive nature of the qualifying campaign, which came to an end when Swiss referee Maximo Bussaca had blown the final whistle in the Centenario.
During October's last round of qualifying matches, there was a moment that made the importance of South America's World Cup qualifiers very clear: At halftime in one of the games, the TV network was announcing its forthcoming attractions. The big game coming up in the following week was AC Milan against Real Madrid in the Champions League.
In Europe, the standard of play actually goes up after international breaks -- all those top players return from the four corners of the globe. But in South America, the reverse is true: The standard plummets as the big names fly back across the Atlantic to rejoin their clubs. This means World Cup qualifying is the only time the South American audience get to see its best footballers in competitive action.
The likes of Brazil and Argentina are frequently criticized for playing their friendly matches in and around Europe. Seldom mentioned is that this is part of a gentleman's agreement. In exchange for doing this, the European clubs guarantee cooperation in releasing their South American players for the World Cup fixtures.
Seen in that light, it makes some sense. It cuts down on the amount of traveling time the players have to put up with, and ensures that they will be able to turn out for their national sides in their own continent in the games that really matter: the ones that determine who will go to the World Cup. In those terms, the deal with the European clubs looks like a price worth paying.
This is a comparatively new thing, because it's only in the last 13 years that qualification in South America has become such a marathon affair. Prior to the series leading up to the '98 World Cup in France, the continent's countries were divided into two or three groups, and the process was sorted out quickly, with teams playing six or eight games each. It meant that countries could go years without a competitive fixture -- and in these gaps, it was extremely hard for the less traditional nations to schedule high-profile friendlies.
The introduction of the "one big group" format in '96 represented a revolution. Now all the countries would play each other home and away -- giving them a structure European national teams take for granted -- with regular competitive games. With guaranteed TV income, the weaker nations were able to invest in a process, appoint good quality coaches, keep a squad together and develop in terms of tactics and confidence.
The rise of Ecuador -- from minnows to the last 16 in Germany '06 -- and Venezuela is directly attributable to this change. The consequence is that South America now has perhaps the most grueling and competitive qualification process in the world. As Diego Maradona's Argentina found out, there's no longer a single venue on the continent where the away side can take the field already certain it will win the three points.
It makes South America's World Cup qualifiers compulsive viewing, if somewhat exhausting. I was thinking about this last Wednesday night as I made my way through the crowds on Avenida 18 de Julio. "He who doesn't jump is not going to the World Cup," was a popular chant. And, of course, they all bounded up and down.
But next June, it will be only a moneyed few who will be able to travel from Uruguay to follow their team's fortunes in South Africa. The vast majority will have to make do with TV. And the next time they have a chance to see their best players in competitive action won't be until the process starts all over again in 2011.