CONCACAF bowed to the inevitable this week, and put back its World Cup qualification campaign until March of next year. Further south, though, CONMEBOL are still holding the line, retaining faith that the Qatar qualifiers can kick off in less than a month.
And yet the state of the coronavirus pandemic is as grave in South America as it is further north. In much of the continent, the spread of the virus has not been brought under control. Indeed, the problems facing CONMEBOL are at least as serious as those confronting CONCACAF, and in one sense worse. More of the South American players — and almost all the big names — are based in Europe. Why should their clubs release them for international duty?
Quite apart from the risk of contamination, there are quarantine regulations to be negotiated when the players go back to their clubs. Speaking in a personal capacity, Nicolas Russo from the executive committee of Argentina’s FA sees the scenario as very complicated.
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“The European clubs are very reticent about releasing their players,” he told Radio Colonia. “That seems logical to me. In their place I would feel the same.”
But if the European clubs are reluctant to cede their players, the South American footballing authorities are just as reluctant to give up the hope of playing matches next month.
The explanation for their stubbornness is simple. Their marathon format of World Cup qualifiers, where all 10 teams pay each other home and away, needs a total of 18 dates. Four have already gone — the double headers in March and September. Rule out October and November and there is a serious problem: How to squeeze in all the games in time for the World Cup?
A shorter format may have to be used, such as dividing the 10 teams into separate groups, as used to be the case up until the World Cup 1998 qualifiers. But there is considerable resistance to this idea.
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The marathon format is worth fighting for, with two justifications. One is sporting. From the moment it was introduced in 1996, the “one big group” format proved a success. It gave the less traditional nations the type of structure that European national teams take for granted. Previously the South American sides could have lengthy gaps between competitive fixtures. Now, they were coming thick and fast. Ecuador, who previously had only ever won five World Cup qualifiers, quickly developed into a respectable force, making it to the tournament in 2002, 2006 and 2014. Even Venezuela, who had only ever been making up the numbers, made giant strides. In 2017 their under-20 side reached the final of the World Cup at that level, and they have genuine hopes of making their debut at the senior tournament in Qatar. The South American qualifiers, then, became the most competitive on the planet.
They also became a valuable source of income for the local FAs. All these matches gave the administrators plenty of product to sell to the TV companies. It was this kind of revenue, for example, that allowed Venezuela to invest in their youth structure. Around the continent most of the TV contracts have been signed for the 2022 qualifiers on the basis that each side will have nine home matches. No one wants a reduction.
There is one possible solution. A Copa America is staged for next June and July. It was originally scheduled for this year, but has been put back 12 months because of the coronavirus.
It is a strange version of the world’s oldest continental tournament, an extra version originally squeezed into the calendar with the justification that the Copa was switching from odd to even years. Political wrangling means that it is being co-hosted by Argentina and Colombia; countries at opposite ends of the continent. The logistics have produced a strange format. There are two groups of six (Qatar and Australia have been invited), leaving a long group stage which eliminates just four teams. In recognition of this unwieldy structure, teams are allowed to adjust their squads before the knockout phase begins.
Scrapping this tournament would open up a six week window in which the backlog of World Cup qualifiers could be completed. It looks like the only way to start the action once the virus has been brought under control and still complete all 18 rounds in time.
But the Copa is a money spinner and, again, there is the question of TV contracts which have been signed. And so the preparations for the tournament are ploughing ahead.
Something has to give. Someone has to lose out. Almost certainly this will include the players. Whatever the final outcome, how ever many fixtures remain, the players will surely be required to make plenty of sacrifices to ensure that the show keeps going on. But it is hard indeed to imagine how the South American curtain can rise next month.