EA Sports’ FIFA: Road to World Cup 98 and a Sony Playstation were my main presents for Christmas 1997 and I played it incessantly for months on end despite the dodgy game play. My go-to campaign of choice, especially when pulling all-nighters with friends at weekends and in school holidays, was South America’s CONMEBOL qualification. Unlike other regional campaigns, the CONMEBOL appeared like a traditional league campaign, with all ten nations playing each other home and away, providing a total of 18 games. This appealed much more to me than other regions, where you could play less than ten games and qualify for the World Cup. Where is the fun in that?
The 1998 qualifying campaign was the first time this mammoth format was used by CONMEBOL, who in previous iterations had used a series of smaller groups. It must be said, a region with only ten teams is hamstrung in what it can do and options are limited. But now, the marathon format is widely regarded as the most exciting and competitive campaign in the world, an opinion shared by many, including South American football correspondent Tim Vickery. As the format celebrated its 20-year anniversary in 2016, we can ponder whether or not it has been a success? First of all it’s important to define how you would measure success: is it by the performance of the strongest teams, or the weakest?
As things stand in the current campaign, in the lead up to the World Cup 2018 in Russia, there appear to be six nations in with a chance of claiming the top five spots, the latter of which will face a continental play-off with a representative from Oceania. This is more than likely to be New Zealand and you’d expect the South American side to progress at the expense of the Kiwis. The top six teams in question are separated by a mere seven points, a resurgent Brazil top of the pile with 27 points from 12 games, four points clear of second placed Uruguay. Three points further back, filling the last two automatic spots, are Ecuador and Chile. In fifth and sixth position respectively, are Argentina and Colombia, who many would have fancied at the start of the campaign. Indeed, at the outset those two nations were the highest ranked CONMEBOL nations in FIFA’s rankings, occupying first and fifth respectively.
The final four teams in the current table – Paraguay, Peru, Bolivia and Venezuela – are the continents poor relations when it comes to football. The latter three haven’t qualified between them since Bolivia participated in the World Cup in the United States in 1994, where they narrowly lost to incumbent champions Germany in the opening game of the tournament.
However, Peru are only five points behind Argentina and are more than holding their own. They hosted Chile in Match Day 2 and played out an exciting 3-4 defeat as well as holding Argentina to a 2-2 draw in October 2016. In March 2016 Colombia needed an injury time winner to deny Bolivia in La Paz, winning 3-2. On the same match day, Venezuela were denied the full three points by a last gasp goal, drawing 2-2 in Peru. In September 2016 Venezuela held Argentina to a 2-2 draw who again needed a relatively late goal to emerge with a point. Bolivia and Venezuela both beat each other on their own patches too, with a 4-2 result in La Paz followed up with a 5-0 win in Venezuela. On their day, these teams can beat anyone.
As problematic and controversial as FIFA rankings can be, for this exercise it is a good measure for studying how the CONMEBOL nations have improved. In 1996 only heavyweights Brazil and Argentina were in the top ten. Colombia, Chile, Uruguay, and Bolivia – buoyed by their World Cup ’94 journey – were in the top 50. Ecuador, Paraguay, and Peru were in the top 100 and Venezuela propped up their South American brothers in 116th place.
Fast forward to the latest iteration of the FIFA rankings and the picture has changed drastically. South American nations now occupy five of the top ten spaces. Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia and Uruguay, between them, have five of the planet’s most marketable players in the world: Lionel Messi, Neymar Junior, Alexis Sanchez, James Rodriguez, and Luis Suarez are bonafide global stars. Peru and Ecuador are in the top 20; whilst Paraguay and Venezuela occupy 40th and 59th place respectively. The lowest ranked team, Bolivia, lie in 95th, eleven places higher than the lowest-ranked South American team in 1996. Ignoring the Bolivians as somewhat of an anomaly, these statistics show that all of the nations have improved vastly.
To put that into perspective every other regional federation is heavily represented outside of the top 100, including Europe, perhaps the strongest region alongside South America. In fact, European nations San Marino, Andorra, and Gibraltar lie outside the top 200. It’s clear that Venezuela would comfortably deal with any of these three sides despite their struggles in CONMEBOL.
There are various factors as to why the teams have improved so much. The new format allows the teams to plan with greater thought of the future. In other regions, where the weaker teams may only have a handful of games every four years, the South American nations can plan, and more importantly budget, for a guaranteed 18 qualifying games every four years. To see the contrast, if you look at the 1994 qualifying campaign, the final one before the change of format, the teams were split into two groups and the teams in group A played a grand total of six games, a third of the amount they enjoy in the modern format.
One assumed draw back for longer campaigns is that they can take away the element of surprise. One-off games, as we see in the English FA Cup, can produce shocks, but as far as the CONMEBOL campaign goes it is unlikely that the traditional giants are going to have 18 off days. Therefore the “marathon not a sprint” maxim clearly favours the big boys. Common sense dictates that the top teams will more often than not qualify. But constant exposure to teams of higher quality will clearly only improve the lesser nations.
The world, and as a by-product football, is much more globalised now. Paraguayan’s are represented in 33 leagues across the world. The figures for Venezuela and Bolivia are 30 and 12 respectively. This kind of exposure to higher standards of football, coaching and tactics, as well as the human aspect of dealing with new languages and cultures, can only aid football development in so-called weaker nations.
Despite this undoubted improvement, more often than not we see the same teams qualifying for each World Cup. However, there is always the odd shock and usually one surprise package manages to squeeze themselves into the picture. The Paraguayans qualified for France 1998, a point behind Argentina in second place ahead of Uruguay, Bolivia, and Ecuador who were ranked ahead of them before qualification began.
In 2002 Colombia failed to qualify, despite a pre-tournament FIFA ranking of 18, the fourth highest in the confederation. It couldn’t prevent them from finishing sixth. The biggest shock in the 2002 CONMEBOL campaign was provided by the Chileans, who finished rock bottom of the group having been ranked 22nd in the world going into the campaign. They only won three out of 18 matches, yet one of them was a 3-0 trouncing of Brazil, who went on to win the World Cup in Japan & South Korea. Ecuador, ranked 71st in the world, sprang a surprise by finished second in the qualifying group, one point ahead of the Brazilians. Paraguay and Argentina joined them in qualifying automatically.
In 2006 the Colombians failed yet again to quality, and yet again their neighbours Ecuador, and Paraguay, beat them to the punch. Oddly, the Colombians still retained a high-ranking but completed a miserable hat-trick by missing out on the 2010 tournament with the Paraguayans once against pipping them, only to be narrowly defeated by eventual champions Spain. For the 2014 tournament Colombia qualified for their first since France ’98, and Ecuador qualified at the expense of the higher-ranked Paraguayans. Shocks and upsets clearly do happen then, but it’s a testament to the strength in depth of the region.
So Ecuador and Paraguay of the so-called “lesser” nations have both qualified three and four times out of five respectively, meaning bigger nations have taken their own turn sitting out. That means seven of the ten nations have qualified, a hit rate of 70 per cent over the last 20 years. Peru, Venezuela and Bolivia have yet to qualify under the new format and the three prop up the current table but what is to say they would have qualified had the old format continued?
One of the most curious aspects of the South American qualifying campaign is the different terrains and weather conditions encountered, and this blurs the picture somewhat, making the playing field much less predictable. Forget the English mentality of “fair play” the dog-eat-dog attitude of South American nations means they often choose locations that will provide the most difficulty for their opponents.
Colombia often host games in the sweltering Caribbean city of Barranquilla, where temperatures are regularly pushing 40 degrees centigrade. Argentina often make things difficult for their visitors, dragging them to far-flung corners of the vast country and making it as difficult as possible for fans and players to arrive. Uruguay, just a short boat ride over the Rio de la Plata, were recently hosted in Mendoza in the west of Argentina, in the foothills of the Andes mountains, as opposed to the apparently more convenient Buenos Aires. Argentina also played Colombia in another surprise location, dragging them to the western city of San Juan. Assumedly the Colombians had to take six-hour flight from Bogota to Buenos Aires before changing and boarding another flight to San Juan. Inconvenient indeed.
However, this doesn’t tell the full story. Upon examining the results of Argentina and Colombia it appears that their tactics aren’t necessarily working. In the last two qualifying campaigns Colombia have won 28 points at home, with 20 gained on the road. During the current campaign, Argentina have won ten on home soil and nine away, showing that they are equally inconsistent no matter where they play. Colombia have lost their last two home matches to Argentina, both in Barranquilla, and the loss in this campaign could cost them dear.
Perhaps the most controversial location in South American football is La Paz, Bolivia’s de facto capital, which lies at over 3,600 metres above sea level. In May 2007, following a complaint from the Brazilian FA, FIFA banned high altitude football from being played above 2,500m above sea level which would rule out the cities Bogota, Quito and La Paz hosting games. It’s hard to feel sorry for Brazil, the Latin American country with the largest area, population, economy, and perhaps football tradition. It’s unfair and arrogant for such a powerhouse to claim about something being unjust. Allegedly the ban was to protect the health of the players and to avoid a distortion of the competition.
Following a high-profile campaign, led by Bolivian president Evo Morales and garnering support from Diego Maradona, the ban was revoked in May 2008. Ironically, less than a year after the ban was lifted, Maradona’s Argentina were trounced 6-1 in La Paz yet he refused to blame the altitude. If you’ve ever been to the city and experienced the difficulty of breathing just walking down the street, you’ll imagine how difficult it must be for outsiders, especially playing an aerobic sport such as football. It was therefore refreshing to see Maradona refusing to blame the altitude for the defeat and his team was hardly vintage Argentina. During this campaign La Paz wasn’t the fortress it was perceived to be. The Bolivians only won four out of nine home games, it just so happens that high-profile visitors Brazil and Argentina were vanquished.
The campaign for the 2018 World Cup will recommence in March and enter the final strait, with the remaining six games split over three dates. As always, in true South American style, there will be twists and turns.
First published in The Football Pink Issue 15. Issue 19 out now!