Let’s go round again! The squads are being called up and the anticipation is rising. South America’s marathon World Cup qualification campaign is about to get under way, with the continent’s 10 countries playing each other home and away on the long road to Russia 2018.
This format was introduced in 1996. Before, there had been a division in two or three groups. Qualification was a swift process, over as quickly as a tournament. It meant that there were huge gaps, of years, in between competitive fixtures.
The likes of Brazil and Argentina found it relatively easy to set up lucrative internationals in some of these gaps – the less traditional footballing nations did not have the same facility.
For the last two decades, though, even the lesser lights have had the kind of calendar that European national teams take for granted – regular competitive games, guaranteed income, with the chance to keep a side together and build.
The consequences have been little short of remarkable – especially bearing in mind the current weakness of the domestic game in the continent. If club football in South America has never been weaker, then the reverse is true of the national teams. Never before have they paraded such strength in depth.
Before the 1996 change, Ecuador had won a grand total of five World Cup qualifiers. In that first full campaign it won six, and fell narrowly short of a place at France 98. But it did not have to wait long for a World Cup debut, making it to Japan and South Korea in 2002, and reaching the second round in Germany four years later.
Venezuela is now the only South American nation not to have appeared at a World Cup. Twenty years ago, the very idea would have seemed absurd. Football had little penetration in the country. It was merely making up the numbers. enezuela had only ever won two World Cup qualifiers.
The prospect of Venezuela in a World Cup is no longer so outlandish. It took it longer than Ecuador to build up a head of steam, but towards the end of the 2002 qualifiers it strung together four consecutive wins. Since then, it has been a serious opponent.
It is also clear that the long qualification process is preparing the South Americans to do battle at the highest level.
In the last two World Cups, only Ecuador in 2014 – and that by a narrow margin – failed to make it out of the group stage. After 18 matches against highly-competitive opposition, with all the difficulties of playing away from home in the continent, the South American nations are ready for anything the World Cup can throw at them.
In 2006 Ecuador played the best World Cup in its history. Four years later it was the turn of Paraguay. And then last year it was Colombia. And the last two World Cups have been the best in Chile’s history with the exception of 1962, which it hosted.
Something significant, then, is starting when Bolivia kicks off at home to Uruguay in the afternoon (local time) of Thursday 8 October. Over the course of the next two years of CONMEBOL qualifiers for the World Cup there will be ups and downs, shocks and surprises, and plenty of drama.
Some will say that, of course, Brazil and Argentina will qualify. It seems a fair assumption – especially as the South American side that finishes fifth has been drawn in a play-off against an opponent from Oceania.
But it is an observation that underestimates the challenge and misses the point.
First, Brazil struggled like mad to qualify for 2002 (which it went on to win), and Argentina was sweating until the last to book a place for 2010.
The point, though, is this; the qualifiers will shape the type of Brazil and Argentina that will take the field in Russia in 2018.
The powerhouses of the region go into the qualifiers coached respectively by Dunga and Gerardo Martino. However, there is no guarantee that these men will still be in charge by the time the next World Cup comes round.
Every away defeat, every dropped point at home will set off a mini crisis. With Neymar’s suspension and the injury suffered over the weekend by Lionel Messi, neither Brazil or Argentina can count on their star man in the opening fixtures.
There will be plenty of problems to administer until that place in Russia is won – but the teams should be all the better for the experience of having been forged in fire.
Of course, one of the key justifications for Australia moving to the Asian Football Confederation was the fact that the Socceroos would be tested by far a more competitive qualification process.
So I would like to end with a question. If South American football is clearly reaping the benefits of World Cup qualification with no minnows, how much of that also applies to Australia?