15 September 2005

World Cup Qualifying: South America

You have to like the directness of the CONMEBOL (South American) qualifying process. Ten teams to sort through? Well then, put them in a big group, have them play home-and-home with each other, spend two years on games, and see who comes out on top. Eighteen games for every team; by that point, you'd better have a good sense of who's best. The good news is that they are almost done, with every team having played 16 of their 18 games.

Of the ten teams, four qualify automatically. The fifth-place team then has a playoff with the Oceania winner, Australia. This is a testament to the value FIFA places on South American soccer — either 40% or 50% of the teams from the region will go to Germany.

Where do they stand, with two games left? To absolutely nobody's surprise, both Argentina and Brazil have already qualified. Brazil is of course the most successful World Cup team of all time, and it's difficult to imagine a cup without them. This will be their 18th time; they are the only nation to qualify for every World Cup, and they've won it five times. Argentina is only slightly less storied, and have lifted the cup twice themselves.

What about the other teams? Right now, Ecuador and Paraguay are the two teams rounding out the top four, with Uruguay clinging to the fifth spot. These five teams also qualified for the 2002 World Cup, so if the current standings hold, we'll have a bit of South American deja vu.

Ecuador and Paraguay are looking fairly safe, on 26 and 25 points respectively. While it's too early for them to book tickets to Germany, I think they can start surfing Priceline. Uruguay is on 21 points, barely above Colombia and Chile at 20 points, so that fifth-place spot is still very much up in the air. Venezuela are technically still alive, on 18 points, but would need a miracle to qualify (particularly in their 12 October match in Brazil). Key matches on 8 October are Ecuador vs. Uruguay and Colombia vs. Chile. The 12 October matches between Paraguay vs. Colombia and Chile vs. Ecuador will also be crucial.

One region left to cover: Africa. Look for that report soon!

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