By Brian Beard | 27th AUG 2020
The upcoming CONMEBOL (South America) qualification competition for the FIFA World Cup Finals Qatar 2022 will probably centre on two of the most iconic footballers of recent years; Lionel Messi and Neymar, for different reasons. For the Argentine magician, now 33, it is almost certainly the last opportunity to claim the world title that will cement him as the greatest player of all-time. He will be 39 by the time of the following World Cup so Qatar is his last opportunity to match Maradona.
For Neymar guiding his country to the finals of the World Cup would go some way to helping him justify the hype surrounding his stature as one of the best players in the world. No pressure there then.
Before the delayed start of the CONMEBOL qualification competition, suspended twice, in March and September due to the Covid-19 pandemic, there was already talk of staging the competition outside South America, due to the Corona crisis. Unlikely though that would seem, the grip of the pandemic on that continent should not rule out that eventuality.
The top four in the qualifying group will qualify for Qatar automatically while the fifth placed nation will participate in an inter-continental play off.
Brazil are my favourites to top the qualifiers, a rating reinforced by their FIFA world ranking of three. They have a settled defence, centred on Thiago Silva and are spoiled for choice behind him with arguably the two best goalkeepers in the world, Allison and Ederson. In front of them , and the list is almost endless, they can call upon the likes of Firmino, Jesus, Richarlison, Coutinho and Arsenal`s Martinelli not to mention the three Flamengo players who have just broken into the squad, Everton Ribeiro and strikers Garbriel Barbosa and Bruno Enrique.
Uruguay are the next highest ranking South American team, fifth, and should manage one of the top four slots. They will rely heavily on the ageing strike partnership of Luis Suarez and Edson Cavani, both 33 especially with the expected departure of Suarez from Barcelona, and Cavani from PSG ahead of the 2020-21 season. Renowned defender Diego Godin, for so long the defensive mainstay of the national team is 34 and after 135 caps his time as the leader must be coming to an end.
Argentina are potential table toppers and accordingly odds-on favourites to reach Qatar 2022. You need look no further than; Messi, Dybala and Sergio Aguero to see why. In midfield you have PSG midfielder Leandro Parades who impressed in the UCL despite his club`s Final defeat. I have also been impressed with Tottenham`s Giovani Lo Celso this past, elongated Premier League season. He is the complete footballer, like Aguero, who combines South American silk with Anglo-Saxon steel, and as each characteristic complements the other it translates successfully on to the field.
Argentina`s strength is going forward and their results last year, before Covid-19 included victory over bitter rivals Brazil, 1-0, and 2-2 draws with both Uruguay and Germany.
Colombia I would expect to be the fourth team to qualify but they are a strange mix of inconsistency and outlandish football ability. They don`t seem to do things by half. In James Rodriguez they have one of the best players in the world, potentially. But since winning the Golden Boot in the 2014 World Cup and a £63 million move to Real Madrid his career has never really justified his talent. His most recent attempt to reignite his career, with a loan spell at Bayern Munich didn`t work out and he is now back on the Real Madrid rosta but for how long. Still only 29 the CONMEBOL qualification competition may be exactly what the player needs. Up front Colombia have yet another enigmatic footballer, the volatile Alfredo Morales who lit up the SPL with Rangers and brought plenty of colour, the red card variety, as well as goals to Steven Gerrard`s side.
Then CONMEBOL becomes a football lottery as far as the fifth place that will earn a play-off for Qatar. However, almost every one of the remaining six nations, with the possible exception of Bolivia, must fancy their chances of fifth place because CONMEBOL is probably the most competitive qualifying group in world football. Almost every game has the hallmark of a local derby and it`s quite often a case of any team can beat any other.
Chile has an outside chance of fifth place, but they will face stiff competition from teams they would expect to be inferior to them. In Claudio Bravo they have one of the best shot stoppers in the international game although the rest of the squad is hardly over-endowed with well-known talent. Their most experienced player is Arturo Vidal but the Barcelona midfielder, now 33, was hardly up to scratch as his club side capitulated in the UCL campaign just ended.
Peru are ranked 21 by FIFA and have a decent record of World Cup qualification, reaching five tournaments, including the last finals, Russia in 2018. They also came second in the 2019 Copa America. They rely heavily on their talismatic captain and top goal-scorer, Jose Gonzales. Now 36 he has been a fixture in the national team since 2004 and his 102 caps have yielded 38 goals. The team proved the assertion that any South American team can beat any other when, last September, they stunned Brazil with a 1-0 win, in Los Angeles, with a Luis Abram goal. Peru are a side more than capable of reaching fifth place and that all-important play off.
Venezuela have just the one well-known player and what a player he proved for West Brom and Newcastle, Saloman Rondon. Still only 30 Rondon is Venezuela`s all-time leading scorer with a very decent return of 30 goals in his 80 appearances to date. Much will rest on his experienced shoulders and Venezuela is yet another of the `chasing bunch` more than capable of fifth place. Yangel Herrera is a Manchester City player and has been since 2017 but you can be forgiven if you say, `who` because the defensive midfielder, who has won 18 caps, has yet to make a first team appearance having spent loan spells at three different clubs.
Venezuela can be optimistic at a World Cup debut in two years time as their national team were runners-up in the Under 20 World Cup in 2017.
Paraguay while not having the best track record in FIFA World Cups they are one of the more respected sides in CONMEBOL having won the Copa America twice. But in terms of the World Cup Paraguay did reach the quarter finals of the 2010 World Cup where they had the misfortune to come up against Spain, losing 1-0 to the eventual world champions.
Fabian Balbuena has earned many plaudits for his efforts with West Ham that helped them remain a Premier League club in the season just ended. Miguel Alemiron, Newcastle United`s record signing was a breath of fresh air at St James` Park lighting up the Premier League with his darting midfield runs last season which he ended as top scorer.
An outside bet for fifth place if enough support is forthcoming to the team`s two Premier League stars.
Ecuador`s talisman could well be the former Manchester United winger cum full back, Antonio Valenica who spent ten years at Old Trafford. After 325 Premier League appearances, still a record for a South American player, Valencia joined LDU Quito in 2019. He ended his stay in Quioto recently and despite reaching 35 he says he has no intention of retiring and rumours abound he may return to Europe. More current is the presence in the squad of Jefferson Montero who spent last season on loan in the Championship with Birmingham City.
Defender Pervis Estupinan and Leonardo Campana will be familiar with Watford and Wolves fans, respectively, and aged 22 and 20, respectively, they will be the shoulders on which Ecuador fans will be pinning their hopes on a good showing in the qualifiers. Ecuador will also be hoping that Barcelona`s Fidel Martinez will be able to add to his current tally of seven international goals in his 30 appearances to date.
Bolivia has appeared in just one FIFA World Cup finals, USA 1994 where they played three group games but secured just a single point, from a 0-0 draw with South Korea. Nearly all their current players are home based although their top player, Marcelo Martins, plies his trade in Brazil with Cruzeiro. Aged 33 he is the top scorer in the present squad with 18 goals in his 76 appearances. Martins it was who scored the second goal in Bolivia`s shock 2-0 win over Argentina in the qualifying competition for the 2018 World Cup, in a 2017 game played at 3,600 meters altitude.
Their aspirations are likely set at finishing halfway in a group that gets better as you move up the rankings, Bolivia being placed at 75, the lowest ranked FIFA team in CONMEBOL.
By Brian Beard, Associate Historian to the Football Association.