I am always fascinated by the extent to which failure can be a big part of success, and vice versa.
Take South America’s FIFA World Cup qualifiers, for example. It is not much more than a year since Uruguay and Paraguay were lining up in Buenos Aires for the final of the Copa America.
With four consecutive World Cups behind it, Paraguay must have thought it was a dead cert to make it to Brazil 2014. And Uruguay must have also, especially after it won that final 3-0, thus proving that its semi-final appearance in the previous year’s World Cup was no fluke.
Look at the two teams now. With just over half the qualification campaign over, Paraguay lies at the bottom of the table.
And after an excellent start Uruguay has collapsed, suffering three heavy defeats and achieving one somewhat fortunate draw in its past four games.
In truth, neither is entirely out of the running. Even Paraguay is only five points off the qualification places, which, with seven games left, is not an impossible margin to make up. And Uruguay is in that old familiar play-off position, only behind fourth-placed Venezuela on goal difference.
Even so, as they listened to the national anthems on that sunny winter afternoon in Buenos Aires, few would have imagined that they would be struggling so much just 16 months later.
In truth, though, the signs were there – certainly in the case of Paraguay. It had not won a game on its way to the final, and had made it through after a succession of penalty shoots-outs. Sensing that the team was on its last legs, coach Gerardo Martino made the eminently wise move of resigning straight after the Copa. Paraguay is already on its second replacement coach.
With Uruguay, the signs of decline were harder to see. But it should have been clear that harder times were ahead. Coach Oscar Washington Tabarez had formed his group in the 2007 Copa America.
Basically the same squad has now been together for more than five years – an eternity in football. In the long-term battle between time and athleticism, there is only one winner. Senior members of Uruguay’s team have aged together.
It is here that the failure during the London Olympic Games is especially galling. This was the stage for the new generation - players who had done well in World Cups at Under-17 and Under-20 levels - to step up, seize their chance and announce their readiness for promotion to the senior ranks.
Instead, no reputations were enhanced. The only positive for Uruguay now is that the qualification campaign does not resume until March. There is time for Uruguay to regroup, rethink, rebuild and transform the failures of September and October into successes in 2013.
Two of the failures of last year’s Copa America were Colombia and Ecuador. There were some interesting signs from Colombia in the group phase, but it went down meekly to Peru in the quarter-finals. And Ecuador failed to make it out of its group in a competition where eight of the 12 nations go through to the knock-out stage.
But look at them now. Ecuador is second in the World Cup qualifiers and Colombia is third, both with enough points on the board to give them one foot in Brazil.
Ecuador was always likely to be a tougher nut in the qualification campaign. The altitude of Quito, some 2,800 metres above sea level, makes life difficult for visitors, and Ecuador knows how to turn the screw. It has won all of its home games so far, has started picking up points away is looking a completely different team from the dispirited lot that took part in the Copa America.
Part of this is down to better selection. Coach Reinaldo Rueda picked a strange squad for the tournament in Argentina. It was hard to explain the absences, for example, of attacking right-back Juan Carlos Paredes, or of Jefferson Montero, a highly talented member of Ecuador’s impressive group of wide men. They have both been recalled, team spirit seems much better and the defence – while still far from perfect – has been tightened up since a 4-0 mauling by Argentina in June.
The development of Colombia, though, has been even more dramatic. Before the Copa America defeat to Peru, rival coach Sergio Markarian described Colombia as a team that was physically strong and tactically sound, but one which was lacking flair in the final 30 metres. Then his men went and proved him right, holding Colombia with some comfort before breaking out to win the match in extra-time.
It is not a comment anyone would make about Colombia today. With Radamel Falcao Garcia on fire, it now oozes goals. For a long time, though, the world game’s in-form centre-forward was a damp squib for his country.
As always in football, the stars shine when the collective balance of the team is correct. Falcao Garcia is not a back-to-goal centre-forward. The limitations of his touch play were being exposed by Colombia’s ponderous build-up.
Since the Copa, though, James Rodriguez of Porto has exploded as one of the most talented, versatile and mature young attacking midfielders to be found anywhere. And then there was the recall for Macnelly Torres, one of the greatest exponents of defence-splitting passes in South American football.
Suddenly, then, Falcao Garcia has people making the bullets for him to fire. In the space of a few months, former Argentina coach Jose Pekerman appears to have found a blend that gets the best out of his star player.
His Colombia is by no means the finished article. It now has a wealth of attacking options, but the centre-back cupboard is looking bare. Senior defender Mario Yepes will be not far off 40 at the 2014 World Cup, and his lack of pace is starting to become a problem.
But if new centre-backs can emerge, then Colombia will be able to make the short trip to Brazil with confidence. It could be one of the teams that the favourites will be pleased to avoid, not bad for a side that limped away from last year’s Copa America.
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