Even after Tite dropped his first points in the nine matches since taking over as Brazil manager in a 1-1 draw against Colombia this week, his side’s success is the only constant through 16 matches of the South American World Cup qualifiers. They are the only South American side to clinch a position for Russia this summer. His side’s dominance is seen in their plus-27 goal differential, 17 goals better than second place Uruguay. In terms of soft skills, Filipe Luis lauded his manager’s ability to connect with players regardless of playing time and stature, describing Brazil as in a state of “absolute harmony”.
If this theme of squad unity and calmness were a metric translated to a standing, it would look something like the current one heading into the final two matches of CONMEBOL qualification next month. After Brazil, perhaps Uruguay, with Oscar Tabarez in his 12th season as manager and three points ahead of the drop, is the only other side with room to relax. Jose Pekerman, in his fifth season with Colombia, have two points worth of breathing space. Argentina and Peru are tied on points for the final position, and Chile are now on the outside looking in. In short, every spot outside of Brazil is up for grabs.
As it stands, Peru is on track for their first World Cup qualification since 1982. They began last week out of a qualification spot, but leaped their way past Chile and Argentina with wins over Bolivia and Ecuador. They’re peaking at exactly the right time having lost just once in their last six matches. Under well traveled Argentine manager Ricardo Garcea, Peru sent a warning to the rest of the continent by finishing third at the 2015 Copa America. Their semifinals 2-1 loss to Chile, in which they scored a goal after going a man down, put their counter attacking, fighting traits on full display.
With ageless striker Paolo Guerrero leading the line, we’ve seen sides across the globe use their simple but effective formula of defense, team spirit, and quick counters to trip up more talented opponents. Garcea preaches professionalism and simplicity to his side. Seven out of their starting 11 against Ecuador play on the continent, including three in the Peruvian domestic league. In extracting key traits of Tite and Garcea’s sides, qualifying from the region is as much about not losing as it is about winning.
Peru are the least known out of the remaining sides battling for the final positions, which they’ve turned into an advantage. Contrast this with a Chilean side that took the biggest hit to their qualification odds over the past week. Heading into this round, they were tied for third with Uruguay and a point ahead of Argentina for the playoff spot. And though they lost to Germany in the Confederations Cup final, the run displayed their commitment to their energetic style, to manager Juan Antonio Pizzi, and showed their fearlessness in taking on any side in the world.
Instead, that supposed momentum met reality in the form of a 3-0 loss to Paraguay and 1-0 loss to Bolivia. The struggles also reared old battles, with Alexis Sanchez an easy target. The press described his performances as “completely disconnected” and “lost”, to which Sanchez responded that he was tired of the criticism on an Instagram post. His former U-20 manager piled on in criticizing the winger’s weight gain in his inability to make diagonal runs behind defenses. In addition, Arturo Vidal announced his retirement from Chile at the end of this current run, whether it be in October or next summer in Russia. Vidal previously proclaimed Chile to be the best international side in the world if they beat Germany in the Confederations Cup finals just two months ago. Now on the outside looking in, CONMEBOL has a way of providing its own levity.
After starting in Brazil’s aforementioned 1-1 draw away to Colombia, Chelsea winger Willian observed that he couldn’t remember the last time he had played in a place as hot as Barranquilla. He described European play as colder and “more calm” as opposed to the dry pitches, bouncing balls, and sweltering heat of South America - thus summing up the challenges of navigating two years and 18 matches on a tactical, emotional, and physical level.
The CONMEBOL competition began on October 5th, 2015. To add to the sense of how quickly time passes, a Jorge Sampaoli led Chile defeated Dunga’s Brazil 2-0 on the opening matchday. Sampaoli then lead Chile to its first international trophy in history, moved to Sevilla for a season, and now manages Argentina. It’s then appropriate that the marquee event take place on the two year anniversary of when it began with an October 5th match between Argentina and Peru in Buenos Aires. The first time around ended in a 2-2 draw last October. Peru are in the midst of a 36 year World Cup-less drought, but the last time Argentina didn’t qualify for the competition was 1970 - which happens to be the only time they didn’t make it in which they entered a team. Failing to qualify this time around is unthinkable. Sampaoli certainly has a nose for high stakes.
The table reflects a larger changing of the guard at play in analyzing the rise of Colombia and Peru, and the struggles of Argentina and Chile. Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, and Chile represented the region in the last two World Cups, with Ecuador and Paraguay rotating for the final place. While Brazil and Argentina are the traditional superpowers, Uruguay and Chile are synonymous with this current era of pressing or counterattacking with superstars in Luis Suarez, Edinson Cavani, Sanchez and Vidal.
That makes twelve years since that Suarez and Sanchez generation raised the expectation level of their sides. As those players push 30, it would also make sense that a new opportunity for the likes of James Rodriguez and Colombia would rise to stake their claim. Yet it would be cruel if Chile failed to qualify for Russia having given so much to the modern game. But we must appreciate the emotion and competition while we have it. In 2026, with the World Cup expanding to 48 teams, it’s rumored that the region would add two more places to move to 6.5. If that rubric is applied today, it ensures the big names get in, but shifts the context from Chile and Argentina battling for one position to Ecuador and Paraguay fighting for that playoff spot. From that perspective, the intensity of the final two rounds, and the potential of a world class power sitting at home this summer, is the defining feature, and not a failure, of the most difficult competition in the sport.