While European teams are still battling to take part in next year’s tournament in France, South American teams are already looking ahead to the next World Cup in 2018. Beginning on October 5th the 10 member countries of CONMEBOL will begin the long gruelling series of qualifiers- or, as they more negatively call them, eliminators- which will last until October 2017.
Coming on the back of the recent Copa America and with special centenary tournament planned for next summer, it’s a busy period for South America’s top footballers. In the upcoming qualifiers each country will play all nine others at home and away with the top four sure of a place in Russia. The fifth-place team then plays the top Oceaniac side in a play-off.
It’s obvious that most of the elite players in the region, playing for European clubs, find regular trips across the Atlantic tiring. What few people in Europe appreciate however, is the enormous distances that must be travelled within the South American continent. At almost twice the size of Europe, flight times can be very long indeed. In addition, the variety of climate and altitude is immense. From the Mediterranean-style climate of Buenos Aires and Santiago, to the Caribbean heat of Barranquilla and Caracas, to the thin mountain air of Quito or La Paz (The latter more than 3km above sea level), there are many places where teams can find themselves out of their element.
It’s difficult to predict how these qualifiers will go- since the introduction of the single qualifying group in 1996, there have been plenty of upsets, such as Uruguay barely qualifying for the last World Cup or Argentina’s 6-1 thrashing by Bolivia. South American football is also in a strange place right now. It is often said to be weaker than before and it is certainly true that no South American country have been victorious at the highest level since 2002.
However, while Argentina and especially Brazil have failed to reach their previous levels of success, other countries have enjoyed unprecedented success. Chile are the current Copa America champions, with the likes of Vidal and Sanchez among their squad. Colombia, despite giving a terrible Copa America performance, showed enormous promise in the World Cup and James has rapidly emerged as one of the world’s top players. Slightly lower on the scale is Ecuador, a national side boasting three World Cup qualifications this century, including one appearance in the last 16.
Other, somewhat weaker, teams are also on the up. Venezuela (Always more of a baseball country) have been putting in some good performances. The once-mighty Peru are showing some signs of emerging from the slump they have endured since the 1980s. Despite this, it’s hard to imagine them being at the business end of things two years from now.
With South America having produced many of the world’s finest players and international teams, it is strange how little attention football from that continent receives in Europe. It is rare to hear talk of Brazilian or Argentine clubs except through transfer dealings and the national squads are only seen when the World Cup rolls around. Nonetheless, this qualifying campaign will no doubt bring us some great games and a few shocks along the way. If you get the chance, it could be well worth the watch.