The human need to quantify all things tangible has a few glorious exceptions. While numbers have started creeping into the beautiful game – with Wengerball and others – one that remains a mystery to statistics and other predictions is the South American World Cup qualification process.
The ability of the CONMEBOL (South American football confederation) qualifiers to surprise us remains intact. For football fans, World Cup qualification in South America remains a game of Russian Roulette, an enigma tougher to crack than Nazi code.
Four direct and one play-off spots may seem too generous for a field of just ten countries, when you consider that 32 teams are chosen from 211 nations competing in the qualification process. But the process is the longest of all the six continental qualifying competitions and is, arguably, the most rigorous as well.
A total of 18 matches to be played over a period of two years is an additional nine games over and above the 40-50 games that top-flight footballers in European clubs play over the course of an average season. The additional stress can sometimes manifest itself in the unlikeliest of results, as Argentina can attest to: the 6-1 thumping by Bolivia in La Paz on April 1, 2009 during the 2010 World Cup qualification process comes to mind. And no, it was not an April Fool’s joke.
Who’s going to miss out?
With Brazil qualifying for the 2014 World Cup by virtue of being hosts, a total of six South American countries participated as Uruguay, who finished fifth in qualifying, beat Jordan in a play-off to make it to the World Cup. This time, the team which finishes fifth plays the winner of the Oceanian qualification process.
This also means that at least one out of those six teams – Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, Chile, Ecuador, and Uruguay – which qualified last time, will not be on the flight to Russia 2018.
With CONMEBOL’s ability to throw up surprises, even after each team has played 10 of its 18 matches, it is impossible to predict who will bow out . At the start of the CONMEBOL qualifiers for 2018, four of the 10 were ranked inside the world’s top ten. Venezuela, ranked 69th and last in South America, were the only country never to have qualified for a World Cup. Peru, Bolivia and Venezuela are almost out of the running, but their ability to cost other teams precious points must not be discounted.
For the moment, Brazil and Uruguay look safe and should make it through to the World Cup while Argentina and Chile are placed precariously and may struggle. For Argentina, the runners-up in 2014, a failure to do so would be nothing short of unthinkable.
Chile in deep, deep trouble
La Roja’s accomplishments in the last 10 years have been incredible. A FIFA ranking of fifth, two successive Copa America triumphs in 2015 and 2016, and finishing third and second, respectively, in South America in their last two qualification campaigns, make for an impressive list of achievements.
But this time Chile are struggling in seventh place, on 14 points, two behind Argentina in fifth, having lost four games already. A leaky defence, which has conceded 16 goals – only the bottom three have conceded more – has seen them drop seven points at home to Colombia, Uruguay and Bolivia.
While the mercurial talents of Arturo Vidal (6 goals) and Alexis Sanchez (3 goals) have tried to carry Chile on their backs, the results have been too erratic to guarantee safe passage to the World Cup.
The rest of Chile’s fixtures will not inspire confidence either. Out of the eight games they’re yet to play, five ––at home against Uruguay and Ecuador, away to Brazil, Colombia and Argentina – can be categorised as “tough”. La Roja will be hoping that they can pick up maximum points from the other three matches and pray that one or two of the other teams slip up.
Last time, Uruguay with an average of 1.58 points per game (25 from 16 games) made it to the fifth spot. Before that it was Uruguay in fifth again, averaging 1.33 points every match (24 from 18 games). For Chile, an average of 1.4 points per game (14 from 10 matches) could see qualification swing either way.
Thankfully for them, Ecuador and Colombia in third and fourth places, respectively, are only three points ahead on 17 each, and can still be caught. But Chile knows that time is running out.
Without Messi, Argentina fall flat
New coach Edgardo Bauza must be secretly thanking his lucky stars that Argentina’s all-time top scorer with 56 goals to his name and captain, Lionel Messi, made a hasty U-turn on his retirement announcement after Argentina had lost a third consecutive tournament final, the Copa America Centenario 2016, in July to Chile.
The two-time world champions have been poor in their campaign so far, winning only four games so far, and only one of the seven in which Lionel Messi has not played.
Messi, who was injured while playing for Barcelona, missed Argentina’s latest double-header against Peru and Paraguay; La Albiceleste picking up only one point from those two matches.
Their 1-0 loss against Paraguay on Tuesday meant that Argentina had lost two home qualifiers during a single campaign for the first time ever.
They have scored just 11 goals over the course of 10 matches, higher than only Paraguay (10) and last-placed Venezuela (9). Their over-dependence on Messi is evident as the Barcelona forward is their joint-top scorer with Gabriel Mercado on 2 goals, despite playing only three games – harder to believe considering the embarrassment of attacking riches in the form of Gonzalo Higuain, Sergio Aguero, Angel Di Maria, and Ezequiel Lavezzi that Argentina boast of.
The inability to call upon an unchanging four – the Premier League pair of Nicolas Otamendi and Ramiro Funes Mori were the latest duo to feature at centre-back – and an ageing Javier Mascherano have contributed to their defensive woes, resulting in home losses to Ecuador and Paraguay.
For Bauza and the rest of the country, it is of paramount importance that Messi remain fit for the rest of the campaign.
The Samba boys roll on
After Brazil had been humiliated by Germany 1-7 in their own backyard, the hiring of Dunga as head coach for the second time only served to throw fresh doubts on whether the five-time world champions would be able to bounce back.
On March 29, Brazil drew 2-2 with Paraguay in Asuncion, having picked up only 9 points out of a possible 18 till that point, which led to Dunga being sacked again. In came the manager of 2015 Brasileiro champions Corinthians, Adenor Leonardo Bacchi, also known as Tite, and the move seems to have paid off.
Since then Brazil have won four out of four, scoring 12 goals, and conceding only one to march to the top of the CONMEBOL standings with 21 points, one ahead of Uruguay in second place. The emergence of Gabriel Jesus – the 19-year old is Brazil’s top scorer with four in four – and other youngsters like Marquinhos, Wendell, Fabinho, Douglas Santos and Gabriel Barbosa has injected fresh blood into the team.
Most important, the over-reliance on Neymar seems to have been shed – apart from the 24-year Brazilian striker, Willian also has three goals. Douglas Costa, Filipe Luis, Renato Augusto and Ricardo Oliviera have two goals each.
Their next match, against Argentina at home on November 10, will provide the perfect litmus test for the team’s progress under their new manager. Win, and it will send out a strong message to the rest of the watching world – Brazil are to be feared once again.