Argentina sit top of the South American pile. Last week’s defeat to Uruguay notwithstanding, it has been a year defined by serenity and clarity. The skeleton of the side that won last year’s World Cup is still in place, led by twin deities Lionel Messi and Lionel Scaloni. Their fans will be lording it up in Rio before kick-off and, on this occasion, their superiority complex will be justified.
Brazil have lost two consecutive qualifying matches for the first time in history. They had never lost a qualifier against Colombia before last Thursday’s 2-1 reversal in Barranquilla. They have already, in five matches, conceded more goals than they did in the entirety of the qualifying competition for the 2022 World Cup. Argentina, Uruguay, Colombia and — yes — Venezuela are ahead of them in the standings. Including friendlies, they have lost four of their eight games in 2023.
Remarkably, the Selecao have never lost a World Cup qualifier on home soil. If that changes on Tuesday night, the dial on the crisis-o-meter will jolt up into the red zone.
If there is one crumb of comfort for Brazil, it is that they still, despite the shaky start, occupy one of the automatic qualification berths. Indeed, whatever happens tonight — whatever happens before Carlo Ancelotti takes over from Fernando Diniz next June, even — the situation is more than likely to be salvageable. Not just because the Selecao can be expected to pick up form at some stage, but because the South American qualifying for World Cup 2026 holds all the peril of a bouncy castle.
The expansion of the World Cup finals from 32 teams to 48 means that six of the 10 South American nations will qualify automatically, with a seventh entering an inter-confederation play-off. This is up from four automatic places and one play-off place, which was the format for the previous seven tournaments. Brazil (or Argentina, for that matter) could completely implode and still make it with games to spare.
This, too, plays into the significance of tonight’s match. Zoom out a little and it’s difficult to ignore the shifting sands of the South American game. This isn’t just another continental grudge match of a qualifier; it could be one of the last of its kind.
There is — or at least was — a kind of beauty to the current double round-robin league format, introduced before the 1998 World Cup.
It is democratic, for a start: everyone plays everyone, so you can never argue that you were on the wrong end of a rotten draw, or that those teams that qualify don’t deserve it. Take out the two best teams (Argentina and Brazil) and the two minnows of the region (Venezuela and Bolivia) and qualification spots were spread out fairly evenly between 1998 and 2022.
Commercially, the appeal was easy to understand. The smaller nations had nine guaranteed home games, two of them against genuine global giants, which was good for ticket sales and TV rights deals. Given that there is no qualifying for the Copa America — unlike the European Championship, say — the fixtures filled up the calendar between tournaments.
From a narrative standpoint, it was also a success. With so many games taking place over such an extended period, there was time for stories to emerge, for fortunes to fluctuate. The in-form team at the start of qualifying might be struggling two years later. In this age of instant gratification, the gruelling, relentless nature of it was part of the charm. It was a marathon, not a sprint.
There has, however, long been scepticism about the format in Argentina and particularly in Brazil. You can dig out news stories from 2005 in which the Brazilian federation were said to be keen on shifting to a single round-robin format, and the background noise has only grown louder in recent years.
Many arguments turn on the travelling involved, which borders on the inhumane even if you disregard the obvious environmental implications. Without wishing to state the obvious, South America is a huge continent; Dublin is closer to New York City than Caracas is to Montevideo. Six-hour flights to and from away games are not uncommon, and that’s after a decent portion of the players schlep over from Europe.
“It’s a huge number of miles compared to the European teams,” said the former Brazil captain Thiago Silva last year. “If we could somehow find more of a balance, it would definitely improve our wellbeing and our performance levels. It wears us out.”
The inevitable fatigue creates tension with clubs, who are not always delighted about their star players arriving home jetlagged on the eve of important matches, having been kicked around in La Paz or Lima 24 hours earlier. The arm wrestle between Brazil and Arsenal over the fitness of Gabriel Jesus — who is expected to start tonight despite missing recent Arsenal matches — is only the most recent example of strained relations.
Other complaints were, until the current campaign, less convincing. One was that the competition was essentially too easy for Brazil and Argentina, with too many meaningless games. The big two qualified for every World Cup between 1998 and 2022, after all. Yet this is to ignore three pretty close shaves: Brazil had to rally in the final rounds to qualify for the 2002 tournament, while Argentina barely stumbled through in both 2010 and 2018. In reality, the level of danger was probably just about right.
No, this was more about ambition. Argentina and especially Brazil have grown tired of the qualifying competition, of slogging it out against Bolivia and Venezuela. They dream of playing more matches against top European teams, a desire laid bare in 2021 when UEFA and CONMEBOL (the South American football federation) discussed the possibility of a joint Nations League.
This is, on the one hand, motivated by sporting considerations. Argentina and Brazil often feel they are at a disadvantage at World Cups because they don’t get to test themselves enough against the best sides. It is why they were unhappy about the introduction of the UEFA Nations League: it took up some of the remaining dates on which they could arrange friendlies in Europe. It is seen as no coincidence that Brazil have been eliminated by the first competent European team they have faced at recent World Cups.
Predictably, there is also an economic argument here. Games against England and Portugal would be more lucrative than matches against Ecuador and Peru. The North American market is also increasingly attractive. Brazil have never been afraid to leverage their worldwide cachet — witness the Brazil Global Tour — but the fixtures rarely set pulses racing. Freeing up eight or nine extra dates every four years might allow them to book more high-profile opponents.
(Ironically, one of the big gripes with the Selecao in Brazil has been the disconnect between the team and the Brazilian people. Forgoing home fixtures for further globetrotting is unlikely to appease existing critics on this front.)
This can all sound fairly cynical. The thinking echoes that behind plans for a breakaway European Super League; a kind of big-fish-in-small-pond syndrome.
For Brazil and Argentina, then, the World Cup expansion, and its knock-on effect on qualifying, was arguably a boon. Now, with the very real possibility that 70 per cent of the continent’s teams could reach World Cup 2026, the argument about the lack of jeopardy comes sharply into focus. Ninety games to eliminate three nations? Yeah, that does actually seem a bit silly.
Briefly, last year, it looked as though things might change in time for 2026. CONMEBOL officials expressed doubts over the competitive and commercial viability of the tournament. There were discussions, led by Brazil, over an alternative format involving two groups of five teams. In the end, though, talks came to nothing. Some of the other federations had already sold the TV rights for the existing format and were understandably reluctant to tear up those contracts.
It is likely to be a short stay of execution for the current system, however. Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay will each host a match at World Cup 2030 and will thus qualify automatically. Where that leaves the qualifying tournament is anybody’s guess.
Some federations have suggested sticking with 10 teams as normal, with the three hosts taking part anyway, but that would be a recipe for chaos and corruption. So how do you arrange a tournament for the remaining seven? How many berths will they be competing for? Even the most sensible proposal — a seven-team round-robin with, say, the top three teams joining the hosts — would presumably be distasteful to Brazil, who would still have to play 12 games but none against Argentina or even Uruguay.
It is not an easy knot to unpick, and that’s before you even get to the implications for 2034 and beyond.
With so much uncertainty, wild theories abound. One is that CONMEBOL itself is at risk. It is, by definition, an atypical federation. Its size (10 members) is dwarfed by UEFA (55), the Confederation of African Football (54) and the Asian Football Confederation (47), which means they have to employ certain workarounds: inviting teams from outside the federation to play in the Copa America, for instance.
The recent approximation between CONMEBOL and CONCACAF (Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football) — next summer, the Copa America will take place in the U.S. for the second time in eight years — has led to some whispers of a future merger.
That would be a Frankenstein’s monster in terms of language, culture and sporting tradition. It would also be a political minefield. Financially, though, it is said to hold some appeal, particularly in Brazil, where there has been a big pivot towards external investment and expertise in the domestic game.
For now, it is wise to take every suggestion — even the eminently logical ones — with a pinch of salt. Nothing goes out of date quicker than a prediction about South American football. But as Brazil and Argentina walk out at the Maracana, it is worth pausing to reflect on the direction of travel.
This will be their ninth meeting in World Cup qualifying this century. The 10th follows in March. After that, it is not clear when they will next play a competitive fixture. Nothing stays the same forever, but for anyone enchanted by this rivalry — and by the strange, untameable mammoth that is South American qualifying — a sense of loss is inevitable.
(Top photo: Gustavo Ortiz/picture alliance via Getty Images)