The CONMEBOL Rollercoaster

July 10, 2009 at 11:58 pm Leave a comment

CONMEBOL switched to a single-table qualifying system after the 1994 World Cup and has retained the format since.  With the World Cup winner no longer being granted automatic qualification we will always see a 10 team, 18-game qualifier.  The last two editions have kicked off in the year immediately following the World Cup, resulting in a 3-year marathon wrapped around a Copa America.

I like the format.  For one I like single-table formats – I think they work best for determining the best team.  I also like it because throughout the 90s and even today South American teams struggle to get together for qualifiers and friendlies due to the travel required.  Spreading the games out over three years eases the problems associated with calling up players based in Europe.  Finally, it helps give each and every team a better chance to develop depth than they would have in a short tournament a year ahead of the Cup.

I don’t like every single thing about it of course, but I prefer it to the constantly changing mini-tournaments of the past.  If CONMEBOL can settle on a 4-year interval for Copa America I’ll like it even better.

This qualifying cycle began with Brazil’s coach as stand-out storyline.  Dunga replaced Parreira despite having never coached a professional team before.  Some would predict a repeat of 2002 – during qualifying Brazil lost 6 games and ended in third all of 13 points behind Argentina.  Late in the process Scolari was hired; he went on to win World Cup 2002.  I certainly feared, yet at the same time hoped, this might happen again.  These days there is little talk of a miraculous recovery because it turns out none is needed.  Though heavily criticized at times for his style, Dunga has Brazil on top of the table with four games to go.

At times Brazil was as low as fourth, but unlike the 2002 cycle noone is running away with this one.  The difference between the top four has been and remains tiny.  The difference between the first and fifth place team only recently expanded to more than two games.  No team has clinched yet.  Argentina, as expected, have led at times but they now sit 5 points back of first and only 2 points out of the playoff spot (and a further 2 away from sixth place).  Their coach?  Since 2008 it has been Maradona, just as inexperienced a coach as Dunga and certainly more controversial.

I expect Argentina will qualify, along with Brazil.  Paraguay, unsurprisingly consistent for those who follow CONMEBOL, will also make it through.  I’ll add that I expect Chile to qualify as they have an easy (overall) last four matches while Uruguay, Colombia and Ecuador all face each other and will be fighting for their playoff lives.  Of those three, Ecuador has the easiest final game and it may be against a qualified, uninterested Chile.

Let me reiterate that I expect Argentina to qualify, however, if Brazil were to win in Argentina in the next round expect a panic of historic proportions as Argentina still have to face Paraguay away and Uruguay away and would desperately need points from those matches to keep them safe from last minute elimination.

I’ll end with a little more focus on Brazil.  We’ve learned that Dunga is a limited coach, but one who has improved.  whether he can win the World Cup depends on how much he has learned on two fronts: handling stifling defense and motivating his stars for certain games.  Handling open teams has not been a problem, nor has motivating his team for big rivalries.  Brazil will likely win the qualifiers and go on to the World Cup having won every competition they entered since their 2006 WC exit.  To win the World Cup after such a successful stretch is yet another challenge.

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Entry filed under: Brazil, Other national teams.

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