In order to qualify for the World Cup, FIFA created sub-divisions of their organization for each continent, and each division has its own qualification process that depends on the size of the continent, the number of national teams and overall quality of the teams. In the opinion of many, South America has, by far, the toughest qualifying route to the World Cup. The South American division of FIFA, called CONMEBOL, only has 10 members: Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay and Venezuela. Because of this, FIFA only allocates 4.5 spots in the World Cup for South America, meaning that the top four teams, as per a league table, are guaranteed qualification to the World Cup Finals, whereas the fifth place has to play a further qualification tie, usually against the top team from Oceania.
In terms of talent for the average team, South America is the best in the world, as even the weakest teams in this division would be among the strongest in every other continent other than possibly Europe. Therefore, every qualification cycle, there are always several really good South American teams that fail to make it to the World Cup, which results in an extremely hard-fought and cut-throat campaign from every nation where every single game is important. When you add in the long history of the sport in South America, heated rivalries between countries, the exciting, expansive type of football that South American teams usually play, the crazy dedicated fans, unpredictable weather conditions of the region and notorious referee decisions, you get the most interesting and fun to watch qualification process in my opinion.
This international break over the past two weeks saw two match days play out in al Sur del Mundo, with 10 games in total being played. In typical CONMEBOL fashion, these two match days brought drama, red cards, crazy goal celebrations, passionate victories, crushing losses, insane goals and fun football to watch in general.
Match Day 3
Match Day 3 started out with a highlight match between two of the best teams in the continent, Colombia and Uruguay. Up until this point, both teams were in decent — but not perfect — form, and being that this match was held in Barranquilla, Colombia was seen as slight favorites. Those predictions would end up being completely wrong as Uruguay utterly tore Colombia to pieces 3-0. The famous Uruguayan strike partnership, Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez both got on the score sheet in the first half, before Darwin Nunez sealed the win with a well-placed longshot.
The next game was a surprisingly open match which saw Bolivia host Ecuador; both teams came close to claiming victory. On paper, Bolivia is the weakest team in South America and has been for some time. However, in all home matches, the Bolivians play in their home stadium, the Estadio Hernando Siles in La Paz, which is just shy of 12,000 feet above sea level, since parts of Bolivia is covered by the Andes Mountains. When playing here, Bolivia are an entirely different team. Despite Ecuador being in good form, Bolivia took the lead and was on the verge of ensuring a draw if not for Ecuador being awarded an extremely controversial penalty in minute 88 to which Carlos Gruezo scored, giving Ecuador a 3-2 win. Even though Ecuador only snuck a win through a dubious penalty, a win away in La Paz is a crucial three points.
From there on, the audience was treated to another high-profile match as Chile welcomed their hated-rival, Peru to Santiago. Despite a cagey second half, Chile did all the work in the first, with Arturo Vidal bagging a brace to gift Chile a 2-0 win, and all three points.
The fourth match of the day saw Argentina face off against Paraguay in Buenos Aires. In a truly exciting end to end match, Argentina was the slightly better team overall, but the video assistant referee denied them a win as the ref disallowed Lionel Messi a goal in the second half, which would have decided the match. Instead, both teams had to settle for a point each after a 1-1 draw.
In the fifth and final match of Match Day 3, Venezuela traveled to Sao Paulo to play Brazil, the current champions of South America after their 2019 Copa America victory. In spite of the gap in quality between the two teams, Venezuela put up a good fight against el Selecao and only lost after Bobby Firmino was able to bungle the ball over the line in the second half, granting Brazil a tight 1-0 victory.
Match Day 4
The Estadio Rodrigo Paz Delgado in Quito saw Match Day 4 kick-off between Ecuador and Colombia, in what would turn out to be arguably the most shocking result of this international break. If Colombia’s loss to Uruguay the week prior was embarrassing, this was historic — complete and utter humiliation as the Colombians slumped to a 6-1 smashing at the hands of Ecuador. The match started off terribly for Colombia as they found themselves already 4-0 down by minute 39. Ecuador were world-class that day, running circles around their opponents and scoring several beautiful goals.
While not as shocking, the next match provided another big upset as Venezuela was able to turn around their recent run of poor results and overcome Chile 2-1 in Caracas. Venezuela admirably outplayed Chile throughout the match, and while Arturo Vidal was able to slide home a quick equalizer after Venezuela’s opener, all their hard work paid off when Salomon Rondon rolled back the years and scored a memorable winner.
In the third game of this match day, Peru hosted Argentina in Lima with both teams looking to improve on the previous week’s results. Unfortunately for Peru, only one team in this match saw improvement as Argentina simply outclassed Peru 2-0 in a scoreline that could have been even higher. Argentina was able to build upon their good second-half performance against Paraguay and turn it into a dominating match-winning feat of strength against the Peruvians.
In the following match, Bolivia headed to Asuncion where they played Paraguay in what would turn out to be another end to end contest. Paraguay opened the score with a penalty from Angel “Kaku” Romero — his fourth goal in this qualification cycle — before Bolivia found an equalizer, then eventually pulled ahead with goals either side of halftime. Paraguay fought hard for their own equalizer, which they would end up getting after Kaku scored, clinching a 2-2 draw for his team.
In the last match of this international break in South America, Uruguay invited Brazil to Montevideo in what was the headline game of these two match days. Despite, doing just enough to win their last two matches, Brazil flipped the switch and really took the game to Uruguay, winning 2-0 with a deflected longshot from Arthur Melo before a well-coordinated header from Richarlison. Uruguay was by no means bad, but Brazil was a whole class above them, perfectly illustrating why they are the undisputed best team in South America and arguably the best in the world.
Biggest Winners and Losers
Overall, these two match days in CONMEBOL qualifying, several teams and players had particularly noteworthy performances and on the flip side, some had very forgettable moments as well.
As was mentioned before, Brazil continues to dominate South America and their two wins here are proof of that. And as a result, they currently sit at the top of the table. In second place is Argentina who also had a good showing over the past two weeks. The previous three years have been chaotic from an Argentine perspective, and while the squad is nowhere near as talented as past editions in terms of player quality, the current manager, Lionel Scaloni, seemingly has found a system that works and keeps Argentina winning.
Outside of the big two in South America, Ecuador easily had the best performances over these few matches, earning a vital win away from home in Bolivia then demolishing Colombia. A team that is filled with young players, Ecuador has the potential to a serious side in the near future.
As for individual players, Arturo Vidal was very good as of late, scoring in both of Chile’s games, making him joint-top scorer with four goals. Nicolas Gonzalez of Argentina also impressed many, scoring important goals in both matches for his team and solidifying his place as a critical member of the squad. Despite, not winning any matches over this break, Bolivia’s hero, Marcelo Martins Moreno, had a wonderful international window, scoring twice and playing a part in all of Bolivia’s goals.
On a sadder note, nobody had a worse international break in South America than Colombia. Despite having a squad filled with world-renowned players like James Rodriguez, Juan Cuadrado, Duvan Zapata, Luis Muriel and many others, they lost both their matches, getting absolutely embarrassed in both. Big questions will be inevitably asked about their manager, Carlos Queiroz.
One other team had a particular international window to forget, and that was Peru. This Peruvian team has greatly overachieved in recent years, getting third place in two Copa Americas, before becoming runners-up in the most recent one, while also qualifying for the 2018 World Cup. However, it looks like fatigue has finally caught up with the players and staff, as they fell to a pair of 2-0 losses, albeit to strong opposition in Chile and Argentina. We are still very early on in the cycle, but it looks like Peru’s route to the 2022 World Cup may already be slipping away.
Over these two match days, there were a plethora of world-class goals scored across the 10 matches. In my opinion, the best had to be Gonzalo Plata’s strike against Colombia. The Ecuadorian winger waded through Colombia’s left flank and with a quick step over he passed the ball to Angel Mena, who returned the ball with a cheeky backheel. On the far edge of the box, Plata then unleashed his left foot with a curling effort which flashed across Colombian keeper David Ospina before smacking the far post and rolling into the net.
While Plata’s goal was the best of the bunch, I must also mention Arturo Vidal’s screamer of a knuckleball from far out, which looped into the upper 90 of the Peruvian net, leaving keeper Pedro Gallese no chance. Also, Marcelo Moreno’s one-touch curler from the edge of the box against Paraguay, which curved perfectly into the lower corner was exceptional as well.