Despite European internationals returning to their club teams, there was another round of South American World Cup qualifiers on Thursday night. All 10 of CONMEBOL’s national teams took to the field for the third time in the international break.
There is a need to squeeze in so many games because the pandemic severely disrupted the original schedule. South American countries will play another two World Cup qualifiers next month, followed by two more in January and a further two in March. The top four teams will then advance to the tournament in Qatar and the side that finishes fifth will contest an intercontinental play-off.
Brazil are way out in front going into Thursday’s games having won nine and drawn one of their 10 matches to date. Argentina are also looking reasonably comfortable with a seven-point lead over fifth-placed Colombia. It is a matter of when, not if, the two South American giants book their place at the World Cup.
Brazil and Argentina have not always had it so comfortably, though. The latter could easily have missed out on the 2010 and 2018 editions. Brazil nearly failed to qualify for 2002, a tournament they went on to win. Uruguay finished third at the World Cup in South Africa but only qualified in fifth place within CONMEBOL. That is the beauty of South American World Cup qualifiers, it is the most competitive in the world and frequently the most engaging and entertaining too.
It was not always like this. The marathon round-robin format in which each team plays home and away against the other nine sides in the confederation was introduced in time for the 1998 World Cup. Four years earlier the national teams were divided into two groups and competed for just three guaranteed places at the tournament. The process for 1990 featured three groups of three (Argentina qualified automatically as holders), the winners of which advanced to the competition in Italy. In that campaign each team played only four qualifiers compared to 18 today.
The switch to the present structure was a masterstroke. It has significantly improved the strength in depth on the continent by guaranteeing CONMEBOL’s members regular competitive games. This has brought vast improvements outside of the big two. It is no longer a surprise to see Ecuador competing at a World Cup, for instance. Chile became the best team in South America in the mid-2010s. Uruguay have become a force to be reckoned with once more.
Yet fans of the current format of South American World Cup qualifiers should enjoy it while it lasts. CONMEBOL is unlikely to ditch it any time soon but the expansion of the World Cup to 48 teams will make the qualification process much less absorbing. Six teams from South America will qualify automatically for the 2026 edition – a majority in the region. It is hard to envisage Brazil or Argentina ever being in trouble again and there will be less tension and meaning throughout the qualifying tournament.
That is a shame. International breaks are usually greeted with rolled eyes and sighs in Europe but the reaction is not the same in South America. That is partly down to the fact that the stars from the Premier League, La Liga, the Bundesliga, Ligue 1 and Serie A return to their home continents. But it also helped by a format which has produced no end of drama and intrigue while also raising the overall standard on the continent.
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