Lionel Messi and Wilmar Barrios compete for a ball in a match between Argentina and Colombia, on June 8, 2021.LUISA GONZALEZ (Reuters)
A couple of hours after the final of Mexico 1986, with Argentina recently declared world champion, the Albiceleste coach, Carlos Bilardo, crossed paths in a hallway at the Azteca stadium with journalist Víctor Hugo Morales. “You don’t know what a relief it is to not have to play in the Qualifiers,” Bilardo unloaded, at a time when the champions automatically qualified for the next World Cup, before the speaker who a few days ago had compared Diego Maradona to a Cosmic Kite. .
It is true that Bilardo’s relief describes his detailed and long-suffering personality but, at the same time, it also qualifies the historical difficulty of the South American Qualifiers, usually considered “the most difficult in the world.” Instead of devoting himself to the celebration of the title that had just taken him to the top, the coach could not avoid remembering the traumatic experience he had suffered the previous year in Buenos Aires, when Peru was on the verge of marginalizing Argentina from the World Cup that then he would end up winning. Since then, Bilardo would repeat as a dogma that the Conmebol Qualifiers “are more difficult” than the World Cups, as if finishing high school were more complicated than graduating from a university degree. “Where you go is a fight, they make your life impossible, there is trouble,” he would argue.
More than three decades later, in the run-up to the next World Cup won by Argentina, Qatar 2022, Lionel Messi outlined a similar complication. “We talked about it many times in Spain (with my Barcelona teammates). We said ‘do you know how difficult it would be for you to qualify for the World Cup if you had to go play there: Colombia, the altitude, the heat, Venezuela’. “All (the countries) have a condition that makes it much more difficult, and apart from the fact that they are great teams, with great players,” said the Argentine captain at the end of May 2022, seven months before his consecration in Doha, in a a phrase with which the vast majority of his South American colleagues agree.
With the World Cup returning to America after 20 years, this week the Conmebol Qualifiers for the United States-Mexico-Canada 2026 event will begin, a World Cup different from the previous ones not only because of its triple venue but, especially , because it will be the first with 48 participants, an increase of 33% compared to the 32 teams that played in the last editions. While on Thursday Paraguay-Peru, Colombia-Venezuela and Argentina-Ecuador will play (which will start with three points less due to the resolution of the Byron Castillo case), on Friday it will be the turn of Uruguay-Chile and Brazil-Bolivia.
Difficulties, as always, are guaranteed. A round-robin round-robin system, the participation of three countries that won 10 of the 22 World Cups –five Brazil, three Argentina and two Uruguay-, the enormous parity between the teams of the historic second group –Colombia, Ecuador, Chile , Peru and Paraguay -, the presence of several of the best soccer players in the world, the passion of the fans that reinforce the power of the local teams and the geographical characteristics of the subcontinent. The highest European capitals are Andorra la Vieja and Yerevan, both at 1,000 meters, an insignificant height compared to the 3,600 meters of La Paz, the 2,700 of Quito and the 2,650 of Bogotá, not to mention the usual heat of Barranquilla, shores of the Caribbean Sea, or the Atacama Desert to which Chile resorted in the last edition.
But the novelty is that, starting with these Qualifiers, a good part of that historical difficulty will be alleviated. The relief does not respond to football issues but to mathematics: in correspondence with a World Cup with more teams, the possibilities of qualification will also increase, specifically – for South America – by 20%. If on the way to Qatar 2022, as in all World Cups with 32 countries –a number implemented since France 1998-, the Conmebol countries were eye-popping for the 4.5 places at stake, from this edition there will be 6.5 places available, always with 10 participating countries.
The first six teams in the qualifying tournament that will begin this week and run for two years – the 18th and final date is scheduled for October 2025 – will guarantee a place in the 2026 World Cup, while seventh place will grant an extra chance : a playoff against a country from another continent. If that 60% or 70% to obtain classification guarantees a very high probability, there are also two teams that will have to fight against their past: Venezuela never successfully passed the Qualifiers in its 14 participations and Bolivia only did so once in 17 attempts, in 1994. Those who look askance at South American football, despite the recent consecration of Argentina, suggest with a derogatory halo – and ignoring the unpredictable nature of the sport – that there will be “seven places for eight competitors.”
Even before the 4.5 places that Conmebol had between 1998 and 2022, the difficulties were even greater in the 20th century. Between 1982 and 1994, with World Cups for 24 teams, South America – always with 10 participants – put three places and a playoff at stake. Further back, in the World Cups for 16 teams – from the beginning of the Qualifiers, in the 1950s, until the end of the 1970s – there were only three places in contention. The maximum complexity was for Argentina 1978, when the local team qualified directly and the other nine countries competed for the only two places in dispute, that is, a probability of classification of 18%, pure survival compared to 60% or 70%. of probability that the South American teams will enjoy from now on.
As certain as, in line with modern World Cups, for 48 countries, all confederations will increase their chances, the new increase is especially advantageous for a subcontinent as limited as South America, with 10 participants. If FIFA’s new decision went back in time, Peru and Colombia would have qualified for Qatar 2022 – and Chile would have gone to the playoffs. At the same time, Chile – again – would have played in Russia 2018 and Paraguay would have gone to the play-offs.
Africa, historically postponed, will also be a great winner of Gianni Infantino’s ambition: it will go from five qualifiers in Qatar 2022 to nine – plus a playoff – in the United States-Mexico-Canada 2006, although with fierce internal competition between 54 teams. Europe, with 55 participants, will go from 13 to 16. The road to the next World Cup will also be a historic opportunity for Concacaf: with its three organizers already classified – among them, its two powers -, it will still distribute three direct places and two places for the repechage.
Meanwhile, the “most difficult Qualifiers in the world” will not become the simplest but its historic obstacle course – world powers, stars, heat, height, boiling stands and also historical incidents, such as the self-harm of the Chilean goalkeeper Roberto Rojas in a match against Brazil, heading to Italy 1990 – will distribute many more prizes. The continent of world champions deserved it.
Subscribe here to the EL PAÍS América newsletter and receive all the key information on current events in the region.
#South #America #starts #easiest #World #Cup #qualifiers #history