Feature

The long haul in South America is yet to begin

Neymar got the winner against Ecuador for Brazil in his second match as captain of the selecao (Getty)

While the 2016 UEFA European Championship qualifiers commenced this week, the cream of South American football was running around in mickey mouse games that will have little bearing on what will occurs next year when the likes of Brazil and Argentina play for something far more important than bragging rights and some cash to stock up the coffers.

In the last three World Cups, Ecuador, Paraguay and Colombia produced their best ever performance in the tournament. Chile also enjoyed its best World Cup, if we discount the one it hosted in 1962, and Uruguay returned as a force after decades in the wilderness.

This is clearly no co-incidence. Such a South American show of strength in depth can clearly be traced back to one moment; 1996, when the current World Cup qualification format came into effect.

For the past five tournaments, all of the continent's teams have been in one big group, playing each other home and away. Previously there could be gaps of years between competitive matches. Now there is the kind of structure that European national teams take for granted, with a regular calendar of meaningful games – and the difference that there are no minnows making up the numbers. 

Every match is a test, and the teams arrive at the World Cup battle hardened and ready to go – in the last two tournaments only one South American side (Ecuador this year, and with a slice of misfortune) failed to qualify for the knockout stage.

The next set of qualifiers are a year away – preceded by the 2015 Copa America in Chile – both a title that teams want to win, and a training ground for the challenge ahead.

Until then, though, South American national team football lives its 'silly season'.

The first year after the World Cup is the dead time in the four-year cycle. It is filled only with meaningless internationals.

New coaches are bedded in (though some teams currently have caretakers), new players are blooded, coffers are filled with matches played in the United States or long trips out to the Far East.

It means that results during this phase are not necessarily important. Four years ago, for example, Argentina trounced newly-crowned world champion Spain 4-1, thus securing the job of coach for Sergio Batista. In the long run it did him little good.  A few months later, after a disappointing Copa America, Batista was sacked, and Alejandro Sabella picked up the reins for a journey that, after an uncertain start, went all the way to the World Cup final.

He, of course, has now been replaced by Gerardo Martino, who got off to a flying start last week, Argentina gaining a sliver of revenge for losing to Germany in Rio by beating the world champion 4-2 in Dusseldorf. The World Cup final, though, is not a best of three, with a decider coming up in a neutral continent.  The real thing was in the Maracana, and this was just a friendly, with the dangers outlined above of reading too much into the outcome.

But with these limitations in mind, Martino could be very happy with the way his reign started. Already there was a clear idea, owing much to his time at Barcelona. And the most dramatic change was the switch in position of Angel Di Maria; from the left side of a midfield trio to an out-and-out winger, moving flanks but doing most of his damage down the right. Germany could not get near him.

Martino’s version of 4-3-3 is full of width – something that was lacking in Sabella's interpretation of the system, where Lionel Messi operated behind Sergio Aguero and Gonzalo Higuain.

Argentina next faces Brazil (in China!), which is also undergoing a tactical switch under reappointed coach Dunga.  The base formation remains 4-2-3-1 but now Brazil ais operating without a target man centre forward, with the idea of Neymar and Diego Tardelli rotating up front as 'false nines'.

There did look to be more flexibility about the attack but these are early days – both matches against Colombia and Ecuador were narrow 1-0 wins in which the balance was tipped by a moment of magic from Neymar, the new captain.

Ecuador could probably look back on the international fixtures with more pleasure. It probably deserved a draw against Brazil and thrashed Bolivia 4-0 – with a caretaker coach and an experimental team. Young attacking midfielder Juan Cazares made a superb introduction to attacking football and teenage Luis Canga is worth watching at centre back, a problem position in recent times.

Uruguay, too, could be extremely happy with its work. The trip to the Far East brought it two wins – 2-0 against Japan and 1-0 agianst Korea Republic. More important than the results was the introduction and consolidation of some new faces – essential as the side that went to the World Cup is in urgent need of rebuilding.

Playmaker Giorgian De Arrascaeta made a wonderful introduction to the international game when he came on for the last half hour against Korea, looking instantly at home and effectively winning the match. Skilful little striker Diego Rolan did well, teenage centre back Jose Maria Gimenez gave continued signs of his maturity and excellence and striker Abel Hernandez stepped out of the shadow of the absent Luis Suarez and looked sharp.

Another side that returned home with two wins was Peru, which has not made it to the World Cup since 1982.  Indeed, the Peruvian FA expressed a wish for qualification to revert to the previous format of two groups of five.

This, in truth, is a declaration of incompetence, based on the hope that in a shorter format the team could get lucky and sneak its way into the World Cup.  Such lack of faith in the national team's capabilities has its roots in a truly horrific away record – Peru has not won a World Cup qualifier on the road in over a decade.

The good news from the last few days was that it emerged victorious from trips to face Iraq and Qatar. The bad news is that, as we have seen, results in South America's silly season need not count for much.

We will have to wait until June for the real stuff to resume.