No minnows in South America's WWQ
South America's World Cup qualifying shows the continent's strength in depth
The European championships may showcase some of the best national teams around, but two years ago in the most recent World Cup, South America gave ample demonstration of its strength in depth.
For the likes of Brazil and Argentina, a quarterfinal exit is considered a failure. Chile only reached the last 16, but won the hearts of neutrals along the way. Paraguay gave eventual champion Spain its hardest, most even game, and Uruguay went all the way to the semifinals despite having finished its continent's qualification campaign in fifth place and needing to play off against Costa Rica to claim the last spot available in South Africa.
This fact alone highlights the value of South America's marathon World Cup qualifying format, with all 10 teams (down to nine this time, because as the 2014 host Brazil qualifies automatically) playing each other home and away in a big league that takes over two years to complete.
Introduced in 1996, this system has led to a rapid rise in the level of the less traditional nations. Previously they had intervals of years with no competitive games. Over the past 15 years they have enjoyed the kind of calendar European national teams take for granted -- regular matches, guaranteed TV income and the chance to keep a side together and employ quality coaches. As a result, there are no longer any minnows. Everyone starts off with dreams of booking their World Cup place, though if results go badly some will come out of the upcoming fifth and sixth rounds anxiously clutching at the calculator.
That is especially true of Bolivia, currently bottom of the table with just one point from four matches. Three of those, though, have been away from home, where it even managed to hold Argentina to a 1-1 draw. But it is at the extreme altitude of La Paz where the Bolivians are especially dangerous. Un-acclimatized opponents find themselves gasping for oxygen in the rarefied air. It happened in the 2010 campaign to Diego Maradona's Argentina, which was sent packing to roll down the mountain lamenting a 6-1 defeat.
Bolivia is at home in both the upcoming rounds. This, then, is its big chance to get points on the board. But it will not be as easy as it was against Maradona's men. Saturday's opponent Chile is traditionally much better at altitude. The same does not apply to Paraguay, which faces Bolivia a week later. But the Paraguayans have shrewdly taken advantage of the fact that they are not in action this weekend -- it is the slot in the fixture list where normally they face Brazil, who, as we have seen, is not involved in the 2014 qualifiers. Paraguay, then, has brought its men up the mountain early in order to give them as much time as possible to adjust to the conditions. Standard wisdom is that anyone can acclimatize in three weeks, meaning that in theory Paraguay will not be at a significant disadvantage when it opens Round No. 6 on June 9.
The pressure is firmly on Bolivia, which needs maximum points from this round of World Cup qualifying games to haul itself into contention. In great part this is because it has already lost one home game, going down 2-1 to Colombia in October. That was an excellent debut result for the Colombians, quickly tempered by the disappointment of the next two games, when in front of their own fans they drew with Venezuela and were beaten by Argentina. Colombia coach Leonel Alvarez became the first casualty of the campaign, replaced by ex-Argentina boss Jose Pekerman, who makes his competitive debut this Sunday away to Peru -- an opponent that has also made a disappointing start.
After coming third in last year's Copa America, hopes were high that coach Sergio Markarian would take Peru to its first World Cup since 1982. So far, though, it has been undermined by its traditional weakness away from home, as well as the financial chaos of domestic Peruvian football. Markarian badly needs a win in Lima on Sunday, especially as a week later his team travels to Montevideo to face early leaders Uruguay.
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Before that, though, Uruguay gets the fifth round under way Saturday when it hosts Venezuela, a clash that gets right to the heart of the current strength of the South American World Cup qualifiers. Champions in 1930 and 1950, Uruguay appeared to have given up hope of recapturing former glories -- which, given the limitations of its population (little more than 3 million), seemed entirely logical. For Venezuela, meanwhile, until a few years ago the World Cup seemed further away than the moon. It was the continent's whipping boy, merely making up the numbers and taking the field with the sole aim of keeping the score respectable.
How times have changed! Uruguay's fourth place in South Africa was clearly no fluke. It followed up by winning last year's Copa America, and has started the current WWQ campaign like a train, with two impressive wins and a draw (the equalizer conceded in the last minute) from its three games. Uruguay, then, has seven points -- and so does Venezuela, though it has played a game more. Coach Cesar Farias keeps adding new players to his squad, without apparently losing collective cohesion, and Venezuela has earned the right to dream of making its World Cup debut in two years' time.
Uruguay's sights will be set a little higher. The previous time the World Cup was held in Brazil, Uruguay walked off with the title. The recent exploits of coach Oscar Washington Tabarez and his men have many of their compatriots hoping for a repeat performance. Convincing performances in these two coming home games will leave Uruguay well on the way to Brazil with less than a third of its games played.
For the giants of continent the qualification campaign is not just about ensuring presence in the World Cup; it's also about building a team capable of winning the competition. That is surely the main feature of interest in the clash between Argentina and Ecuador in Buenos Aires. After an uncertain start, Alejandro Sabella's Argentina is hinting at having found a blend. But it will be tested by an Ecuador side that will seek to sit deep and play on the counter attack, where the speed and power of Luis Antonio Valencia and Cristian Benitez might prove a problem for Argentina's far-from-established defensive unit.
The action at the other end could be even more fascinating. Sabella seems to be settling on a 4-4-2 formation, in which he has very high hopes of the Sergio Aguero-Lionel Messi front partnership. The pair combine individual brilliance with a natural understanding, and were irresistible in both the last two games, away to Colombia and in a friendly against Switzerland. But how will they fare against a massed defense, which sets out to deny them the space in which to work their quick and intricate passing exchanges? Might Gonzalo Higuain's presence be necessary as a more traditional target man center forward? But if Sabella does start with Higuain and play with a front three, will that leave the team too open to the opponent's counterattack?
Questions for Saturday, and answers that could have a bearing on the outcome of Brazil 2014.
Tim Vickery is an English football journalist who has lived in Brazil since 1994 and specializes in South American football.