As UEFA launches the new Nations League competition to remedy post-World Cup blues, South American squads embark on a slightly different quest as they aim to press the reset button after a poor World Cup showing.
Next summer’s Copa America in Brazil is the obvious target, and upcoming friendlies mark the beginning of a new chapter and a chance for every nation in CONMEBOL to reconfigure its roster and tactical approach.
Russia 2018 was a continental disappointment. For the second straight time in a Europe-hosted World Cup, no South American team made the semifinals, and since the 2002 World Cup, only one South American team has made the final (Argentina in 2014). Quarterfinal representatives Brazil and Uruguay showed their limitations in Russia. The former never really demonstrated the same quality it previously showed in CONMEBOL qualifiers, while the latter inspired in the group stage but ultimately lost to a French team that didn’t need to be at its best to secure a victory.
Argentina, just like its federation, was a chaotic mess, devoid of a consistent strategy and once again depending on Lionel Messi without ever truly understanding him, while Colombia’s limited squad (James Rodriguez was never at 100%) did all it could before bowing out to England in penalties. Peru earned much admiration with its style, but the game demands results and a killer instinct regardless of performance, and they were lacking in a group-stage exit.
The other, bigger issue, deals with the mismanagement and controversy that surrounds certain federations, which is an ongoing obstacle that not only damages the reputation of the game in South America but also CONMEBOL’s inability to lead in the continent.
In Uruguay, FIFA decided to take over temporary control of the federation last month due to governance concerns and the resignation of president Wilmar Valdez a day before the new election over a series of compromising recordings. As a result, the federation is still in a holding pattern over whether longtime manager Oscar Tabarez will return to the bench. For now, youth coach Fabián Coito is in charge for its friendly vs. Mexico on Friday in Houston.
In Peru, Ricardo Gareca almost didn’t return as manager amid chaos regarding its FA president, Edwin Oviedo. He has been pressured to resign over accusations he gave World Cup tickets to a judge who helped exonerate him from a murder probe, though he denies all wrongdoing. In Colombia, U-20 manager Arturo Reyes will take over for upcoming friendlies against Venezuela and Argentina, with Jose Pekerman’s contract officially expired. According to reports, Colombia wants to renew, but given Pekerman’s contract and internal demands, it's unclear how it will play out. Juan Carlos Osorio was thought to be a potential replacement, but he has instead taken over the Paraguay national team.
(UPDATE: Pekerman will not sign a new deal with Colombia, exiting his post and leaving it vacant.)
Shifting focus back to the field, this international window brings an opportunity to disrupt the status quo and redefine the CONMEBOL table. New coaches are coming in, old ones are rethinking their ways and a sense of change can be felt throughout the continent. The question is, will it be enough to keep up with the rest of the world in a few years' time?
Here’s what we can expect from South American nations during this international window:
Argentina continues without Messi
How Argentina performs against Guatemala is not exactly going to tell us how it has moved on from Russia, but given Lionel Messi’s absence, this is a chance for interim manager Lionel Scaloni to build a new foundation for the future and see what else this team can do without La Pulga.
It’s not just about the Barcelona star's absence, as Angel Di Maria, Gonzalo Higuain and Sergio Aguero are also not part of the squad. For Scaloni, the time to renovate and for players such as Cristian Pavon and Giovani Lo Celso to redefine the style of play is now. This is also a perfect opportunity for Paulo Dybala to show his nation what it has should Messi not play again or for the inevitable time when he does finally retire. With the Inter Milan duo of Lautaro Martinez and Mauro Icardi both nursing knocks, watch out for Giovani Simeone to showcase his talents. The son of Atletico Madrid manager Diego Simeone, the 23-year-old Fiorentina striker is a strong, physical player with tremendous skill, but most importantly, he plays like his dad manages: with a lot of heart. Let’s see if the rest of the squad follows suit and turns the page after a debacle of a showing under Jorge Sampaoli this past summer.
Brazil brings in new faces to pair with its stars
Tite has remained manager and prepares to face the USA and El Salvador this month with the hope of seeing what else he has in the attack. Gabriel Jesus’s absence gives an opportunity for players such as Everton’s Richarlison, who earns his first call-up to the national set up. (The original choice, Fluminense’s Pedro, picked up an injury and withdraw). The 21-year-old Richarlison is not a central striker by nature, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see him in that role, given that Tite might even play around with formations and use a 4-4-2 system during these friendlies. There’s another striker that hopes to make a statement; Gremio’s Everton, who is reportedly attracting the attention of Man United and Man City.
The 22-year-old forward has a powerful shot, but given his ability to quickly cut inside, he loves to push out wide and penetrate from the left wing. It should be interesting to see what he can do against international competition and how he can complement the likes of Neymar, Philippe Coutinho and the other World Cup holdovers who are still smarting from a quarterfinal exit vs. Beligum.
Uruguay, Colombia stuck in managerial limbo
Both are using this break in a similar manner, waiting to see their respective longtime managers return. Uruguay, however, only has one fixture to focus on as it faces Mexico (led by interim coach Tuca Ferretti) on Friday. Luis Suarez leads the way, with Edinson Cavani is rested after just recently returning to action due to injury. For Coito, this fixture is all about building from the work done at the World Cup.
"The roster was done in order to maintain the good work that has been going on," the interim boss said in a news conference. "The idea is for everything to go as best as it can as Uruguay is a prestigious team and we have to ensure it remains that way."
Colombia, based in Miami as it gets ready for its friendlies, has players who will definitely want to prove themselves as they take advantage of certain stars missing out. One of them is 20-year-old Jhon Lucumí, the center back who joined Genk from Deportivo Cali this summer. Yerry Mina, who starred at the World Cup, is out, so his absence could be Lucumi's gain. Also, watch out for Boca Juniors' new signing Sebastian Villa, a skillful forward who has been playing well for the Argentine club.
Peru picks up where it left off
In many ways,Peru’s biggest win has already happened. Gareca returned on a three-year contract, after successfully qualifying Peru for its first World Cup in 36 years and developing a distinct style and philosophy. Unlike the majority of the continent, the team will face European competition during this window, squaring off against the Netherlands and Germany in a pair of friendlies. These are opponents that can help develop Peru’s biggest weakness: defensive shape.
The other talking point is moving on from Paolo Guerrero, whose suspension has been reinstated after a freeze on the ban allowed the captain to play in Russia. Renato Tapia, the stalwart defensive midfielder, is also absent, due to rehabbing after a knee injury.
This is a young team, so Gareca wants to use this period to emphasize maturity against elite competition. Watch out for 18-year-old Marcos Lopez, an agile, smart, versatile midfielder becomes Gareca’s youngest selection and hopes to make the most of it.
Chile begins road back to prominence
La Roja will face Asian competition in a pair of 2018 World Cup sides, Japan and South Korea. Chile will be without all-time leading scorer Alexis Sanchez at the request of Man United, which doesn’t want to overwork him he just returned back from injury. This is a key window for new coach Reinaldo Rueda, who has the task of helping the men’s squad regain the successes of the past–including two straight Copa America titles–and forget the disappointing World Cup qualifying campaign, which came up short.
Ecuador welcomes back an old friend in manager Hernán Darío Gómez, who took Panama to its first World Cup this past summer in Russia. “El Bolillo” managed Ecuador between 1999 and 2004 and also led the nation to its first World Cup in 2002, so the nation is hoping for another round of success.
Venezuela and Bolivia, meanwhile need to take advantage of this year and the troubled waters within other national setups and their federations. The instability that surrounds certain South American teams and their federations provides an opportunity for these squads to develop and build upon the talent they possess–including Venezuela's MLS record-breaking forward Josef Martinez. Venezuela, which will also look to integrate players from its 2017 U-20 World Cup runner-up side, plays against Colombia and Panama, while Bolivia faces Saudi Arabia.
Paraguay is inactive during this window, but it made its biggest move in bringing in Osorio. He'll look to mold a team that features young, attacking MLS talents in Miguel Almiron (Atlanta United), Kaku (New York Red Bulls) and Jesus Medina (NYCFC) into his style.
These friendlies represent the beginning of a new chapter for South American teams and bring the hope of a stronger set of results the countdown to next year’s Copa America and, eventually, qualifying for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.