Futbol's Going South



What would a World Cup be without the South Americans?

The opportunity to test the best of European football nations against the faraway empire of CONMEBOL is so exciting because it only happens every four years.

Yes there is the Confederations Cup now and the World Club Championship as well but in effect the two poles of world soccer only cross swords for the FIFA World Cup.

Growing up I assumed Brazil were always the best and that their players were born with superhuman ball skills and effortless flair, two qualities traditionally absent from their prosaic English equivalents.

Whenever the seleçao came to Wembley for a friendly it was a big event as the name Brazil carried so much weight and legend behind it.

Argentina were close behind in our imaginations. If they lacked the samba rhythm of Brazil, they were always an extremely tough cookie to crack for European sides, stacked with talent.

Their 1998 team for instance only made it to the last eight but included the dazzling skills of Gabriel Batistuta, Hernan Crespo, Marcelo Gallardo, Ariel Ortega, Juan Sebastian Veron and Javier Zanetti.

On the rare occasions we saw a Peru or Colombia in London we would still waxelyrical about their Latin élan on the ball.

The bubble burst somewhat in 2014 of course when a European team won the trophy on South American soil for the first time. Not only did Argentina lose the final but Brazil, the hosts, were utterly humiliated in the semi final.

I would still like to think the South Americans are the big boys to beat in Russia next year but the greater resources of UEFA associations have probably favoured a European victory in Russia next year.

Money talks sooner or later and the increasing professionalism of the European club game in recent years has tilted the balance of power towards the UEFA nations and their higher levels of funding.

When you compare football to the Olympic Games where advanced industrialised nations swamp the medals table thanks to their elite funding programmes, it is a wonder South American football associations have managed to keep pace at all in the World Cup.

Surely no South American nation can match the organised professional preparation behind the Deutscher Fussball Bund's top to bottom planning for success for instance.

France, Spain and England also have detailed plans for achievement while the Latin American nations still rely to a great extent on their ingrained skills.

Brazil have improved since their 7-1 Mineirazo and group exit in the 2016 Copa America and qualified with ease for the World Cup finals in 2018. A new crop of starlets like Philippe Coutinho, Roberto Firmino and Gabriel Jesus have brought hope of a return to the golden days of the green and gold.

While the 2014 hosts concluded an impressive campaign by eliminating Chile 3-0 and probably put the misery of their 2014 exit behind them, sterner tests await in Russia.

Brazil are playing with confidence and dominance right now but the possibility of falling flat again at the finals can never be ruled out.

For now, they can relax but should beware of having peaked too soon. A comfortable qualification counts for nothing when you do not impress at the finals. Just ask England.

Argentina are a traditional power at the World Cup but have only scraped through the qualifiers.

The biggest story on the final night of CONMEBOL qualifiers was undoubtedly Argentina's last-gasp qualification against Ecuador thanks to a vintage hat-trick from their talisman.

Cometh the hour, cometh the Messi. The World Cup without soccer's best player? Not in 2018.

Argentina's win in Quito was almost the stuff of legend after they had fallen behind after only 30 seconds. An already demoralised and under-pressure side reacted by showing fighting spirit, not succumbing to their beckoning fate.

Messi's second was breathtaking, firing a catapult past an unprepared goalkeeper to put his side in the driving seat after their nightmare start.

The Argentines I know stayed up all night partying afterwards. More than anything else I can name, football can turn gloom into elation in matter of seconds.

Messi probably never will win a World Cup which in many eyes sets him apart from Pele and Diego Maradona, the other all-time greats. This is unfair as Johann Cruyff never won it either and Cristiano Ronaldo probably never will.

Similar ball wizards George Best and Alfredo Di Stefano never even played in a World Cup finals.

The romanticist in us all wants Messi to play again at a World Cup finals and that is reason enough that it should transpire. Hoping against hope is an integral part of the game. If it all depended on cold logic few would be interested.

Argentina's win spared huge embarrassment for one of football’s greatest nations and the first time that a World Cup finalist had not made it to the following edition since the Netherlands failed to qualify for Espana '82 after losing the final in 1978.

The fact Argentina qualified for Russia should not disguise the fact the Albiceleste are in a bad way - three managers in a year and three draws and a defeat going into their must-win night in Quito. At the start of CONMEBOL qualifiers, they were ranked No.1 in the FIFA World Rankings.

Luckily for them perhaps, Ecuador were already eliminated after a more demoralising collapse having been the early pace-setters with four straight victories.

While it would be churlish to call Argentina a one-man team, the fact is with Leo Messi on the field they won 20 points from nine games, without him only seven.

Accommodating Messi has been an ongoing conundrum for Argentina managers but the trident with Angel Di Maria and Messi behind Boca Juniors striker Dario Benedetto against Ecuador allowed the Barcelona star to run riot.

A dose of vintage Messi, snatching glorious victory from the jaws of defeat should not paper over the cracks however, particularly in Argentina’s leaky defence.

Outstanding individuals can and often do paper over the cracks in flawed teams it should not be forgotten, not least when a certain Diego Maradona hauled a workmanlike Argentina eleven to become world champions in 1986.

The four automatic CONMEBOL qualifers for Russia are ranked thus by FIFA at time of press: Brazil are second, Argentina fourth, Colombia 13th and Uruguay 17th in the world. Should Peru make it as the fifth South American nation in Russia, the tenth-best team in the FIFA family will be at the World Cup.

But the ninth-best nation in the world will not be among the 32 finalists.

Chile will be the biggest absentee in Russia, missing the boat after a 3-0 capitulation to group winners Brazil in Sao Paolo, their fourth qualifying loss in 2017. Alexis Sanchez, one of the Premier League’s best players, will be watching the finals on television, as will Bayern's Arturo Vidal.

While Chile do not carry the star appeal of Brazil or Argentina, it is easy to forget that the team which finished sixth in the CONMEBOL group of ten had not only won the previous two Copa Americas in 2015 and 2016 but also reached the 2017 Confederations Cup final. On paper that country should be at the World Cup as well.

The nucleus of Chile's purple patch had been together since the 2007 FIFA U20 World Cup, but they seem to have reached the end of the road.

Their inspirational coach Jorge Sampaoli resigned in January of last year and will now be in Russia coaching Argentina. The golden age of Chilean football is surely over.

Ironically Chile had won six of their nine home games in qualifying, two more than the three teams who finished above them - Argentina, Colombia and Peru. Their away form let them down badly but their nadir was really a calamitous 3-0 home defeat to Paraguay in August.

A loss of confidence, team spirit and off-field discipline have been to blame, alongside an inability to maintain the high-intensity football which had brought them silverware.

Bizarrely the 3-0 wins awarded to Chile and Peru after Bolivia had fielded an ineligible player in their 2016 qualifiers cost Chile their place in Russia - they had originally drawn 0-0 with the Bolivians, who had beaten Peru 2-0.

That said, La Roja only missed out on fifth-place and a playoff on goal difference to Peru. The Peruvians, who should overcome New Zealand next month, have not been in the finals since 1982 and duly celebrated wildly at the end of their 1-1 draw with Colombia.

Los Cafeteros, buoyed by a quarter-final in 2014 and James Rodriguez’s golden boot, bagged the last automatic spot but the collective feeling in Colombia was one of disappointment that they had limped over the line after failing to beat bottom team Venezuela and giving away two late goals cheaply at home to Paraguay the week before.

Colombia began qualifying ranked fifth in the world and they have risen as high as third since the last World Cup finals but their wilting towards the end is a cause for concern.

Falcao should get to play in a World Cup finals having missed out through injury in 2014, but despite much of the 2014 team - David Ospina in goal, Rodriguez and Juan Cuadrado in attacking midfield still there as well as the manager, the defence looks ropey. Tottenham’s talented young centre-back Davinson Sanchez provides hope however but the full-backs are beatable.

Jose Pekerman's side were the exciting new blood of 2014 after missing the previous three World Cups but it is far from clear if they can build on that success this time around. As with Argentina, they suffered a disjointed qualification campaign and have only a few months to find a rhythm for Russia.

Paraguay's surprise 2-1 win in Baranquilla against Colombia had given them an unexpectedly golden chance of making the finals but fluffed their big opportunity by shockingly losing at home to last-placed Venezuela when a win would have carried them to Russia.

They had beaten Argentina, Colombia, Chile and Venezuela away but won only three of their nine ties games in front of their own fans in Asuncion.

Winning the lion's share of one's games at home and not losing more than twice away is still the winning formula for World Cup qualification.

So South America's football nations head to Russia without the wind in their sails at this stage.

Brazil lost much of their fear factor in losing humiliatingly in 2014 to Germany while the other qualifiers looked riddled with shortcomings.

They have just over seven months to hone their engines for the greatest race of all.

New Zealand v Peru 11th November
Peru v New Zealand 15th November

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(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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