04 Sep Why World Cup qualifying in South America is so difficult
Carlos Queiroz is a global man of football with an impressive CV. He has coached Real Madrid and had successful spells as an assistant with Manchester United. He has won titles in his native Portugal, as well as developing talented youngsters who he took to victory in the Under-20 World Cup. He has taken Iran to three World Cups and done well in Japanese club football. In Africa he has emerged with credit from spells in charge of South Africa and Egypt, and he has also made a contribution to the growth of the game in the United States.
But nothing had prepared him for the South American World Cup qualifiers. The next set of this fiercely competitive competition gets underway on Thursday. Last time round Queiroz — in his first South American adventure — set Colombia out on the road to Qatar 2022. It did not last long. The opening two rounds brought a win and a draw — a thoroughly acceptable start. A 3-0 home defeat to Uruguay could be dismissed as an accident along the route. But what came next cost him his job.
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In what may well be the only serious game in the history of football in which a coach made four unforced substitutions before half-time, Queiroz watched in horror as his side capitulated 6-1 to Ecuador.
There was a new factor at work, something for which even the long and varied career of Queiroz had left him unprepared: the altitude of Quito. Ecuador’s mountain fortress stands 2800 metres above sea level. Bolivia’s La Paz is even higher — 3,600 metres — and in the rarefied mountain air there is no peace for unacclimatised opponents. Playing at these venues requires detailed and specific planning. Queiroz had never had to do it before, and the task proved beyond him.
The geography of South America brings challenges of its own. Altitude is the most extreme example, but there is also heat. Colombia like to stage their home games in the searing afternoon heat of Barranquilla, on the Caribbean coast. This Friday, Brazil are taking the altitude specialists of Bolívia to the tropical northern temperatures of Belem. At the other end of South America, Ecuador will freeze when they visit Argentina in the Buenos Aires winter.
Distances are vast and there is little time to travel across them. Most of the continent’s best players were in action in Europe over the weekend. Then comes the long trip back across the Atlantic, with hardly any time for training before they are in action on Thursday or Friday, followed by another trip for next Tuesday’s second round of matches. Paraguay, for example, will go all the way to Venezuela, while Uruguay will make the lengthy journey to Ecuador. With the climatic conditions and the intimidating atmospheres, there is no such thing as an easy away game in the South American qualifiers. The Qatar campaign registered 24 away wins against 43 for the home side, and even that is unusual. Often there are three home triumphs for every victory for the visitors.
All of that time spent on an aeroplane, of course, cuts down on time that can be spent on the training ground. And for this campaign, preparation has been especially brief.
Typically, there is a gap of well over a year before the end of one World Cup and the start of the next qualifying process — an interval to bed in new coaches and get fresh projects underway. For this cycle, though, just over eight months separate the end of Qatar 2022 and the start of the 2026 process, and this means that almost all the teams go into the qualifying campaign looking alarmingly undercooked. World Cup winners Argentina are the exception, with head coach Lionel Scaloni still at the helm after five successful years. Amazingly, the only other coach who has taken charge of his team in a competitive match is Paraguay’s Guillermo Barros Schelotto. At the other extreme are Brazil and Uruguay. Brazil’s stand-in boss Fernando Diniz will be meeting his squad for the first time this week, as will Uruguay’s Marcelo Bielsa, who used his debut friendlies in June to have a look at fringe players.
The coaches may complain about their working conditions but this offers little protection against the demand for instant results. The outstanding feature of the South American qualifiers — the differential that makes the competition so special — is that no one goes into the campaign to make up their numbers. There are no Liechtensteins or San Marinos. All 10 nations believe that they have a real chance of making the cut.
This is a consequence of the success of the marathon format, with all the nations playing each other home and away. Inaugurated in 1996, for the first time this gave the South American countries the type of calendar that Europe takes for granted, with regular games and guaranteed income. Up to that point there were sometimes gaps of years between competitive matches. Now there was a structure enabling the teams to hire better coaches and invest in their youth sides. Before 1996, Ecuador had only ever won five qualifiers. They are now frequently seen at the World Cup and are becoming increasingly dangerous. Venezuela have yet to make their debut, but have taken huge strides, and their first World Cup is a matter of time.
The expansion of the men’s World Cup has tipped things their way. South America used to have four automatic slots, with the side finishing fifth having the chance of a playoff. That has now been increased. The top six will head to the tournament stages in the United States, Canada and Mexico in 2026, and there is a playoff for the side coming seventh.
True, it is becoming hard not to qualify. But come the end of the process three, and maybe four, nations will be bitterly disappointed at missing out on the party. And those who make it through will have fought their way through slumps and mini crises and plenty of challenges, both sporting and logistical. And there is always the question of altitude to remind the sceptics that the South American qualifiers remain a tall order.