CONMEBOL qualifiers: As Premier League-based players return, can South America qualifying produce more drama?


Here we go again. The CONMEBOL World Cup qualifiers, the game’s longest-serving telenovela, returns this week with another massive triple-fixture. Different characters and multiple plotlines change every few years, but no matter the campaign or the tournament, the drama remains. The stakes may not be as deadly as “Squid Game,” but one thing’s for sure, when it comes to South America and fútbol, they might as well be.  

Last time around, the plot thickened in the middle of an episode centered around its main characters: Brazil and Argentina. It was Sept. 5  in São Paulo and moments after the first whistle in a rematch of this summer’s Copa America final, Brazilian health officials entered the pitch with the pretended grandiosity of a cavalry charge in the Battle of Waterloo and interrupted the game, claiming the atrocious act of breaking quarantine guidelines by four Argentinian players. 

Sure, this is a legitimate concern, thought Lionel Scaloni. But to do it in the fifth minute after kickoff? That’s a new one. Nicolas Otamendi got into it with one official, Lionel Messi was yelling at another while Neymar stood next to him probably telling him not to worry and to start planning a house party in Paris.

The whole world watched in amazement as the game was eventually suspended. Friends from all over my contacts list began to message me. 

“Are you watching this?” 

Another one said: “This is insanity!”

No, I replied: “It’s South America.” 

So, I’ll say it one more time. Here we go again. This time, with the hope of less off-pitch dramatics and more focus on the actual competition. The main issue of international travel restrictions and quarantine is hopefully easier to deal with, at least from the United Kingdom and Premier League-based players. Last week, the British government came to an agreement with the country’s top division and its clubs by loosening restrictions. Players who are fully vaccinated can travel to nations on the U.K.’s red list during the window and will be allowed to train or play when they quarantine on return. They will return inside a “bespoke facility,” and return to club action sooner than later.

The question, however, as it was the case in São Paulo, is also the travel within South America. There is no Brazil vs. Argentina in this window but we do have another fierce rivalry in Peru vs. Chile. The opportunity for South American pettiness is still possible. 

But I joke. The main talking point will hopefully be about qualification and of course, health and safety for all involved. 

I include mental health. 

For my European friends, I want to remind them that this pandemic remains more prevalent in the developing world so these South American players (and staff), who play in Europe, take a risk — both physical and mental — in these strenuous circumstances. They also carry incredible pride in playing for their national team and know that in these times, this can be a delicate subject when you also represent your actual employer — your club. Not to mention the time away spent from their families. 

“They go for 10-12 days with their national teams, and then they go another 10 days away from their families into quarantine,” Jurgen Klopp said last week. “That’s 22 days, and two weeks later there’s the next international break. It doesn’t sound to me like a real solution.

“We take people for three weeks out of normal life for no real reason because we take care of our players when they’re here and with their families.

“They don’t do anything else. They go home, come to training and go home … The Premier League has to fight for our players.”

Thomas Tuchel also mentioned his distaste of the situation as he is prepared to lose Thiago Silva. “This is the situation of international breaks in 2021. Like it or not, what can I do? Is it a good solution for us as a club? No. But we cannot hold him back,” said the Chelsea manager after the team’s win over Southampton. 

All I am saying is this: Have a little empathy. Trust me, I get it. I am a lifelong Aston Villa fan but I am also Peruvian. It can be a very conflicting situation. One that cannot please everyone. As is almost always the case.


Right then, to what matters. The main themes of this qualifying cycle remain. Brazil and Argentina, both yet to lose a game, are half-a-foot inside next year’s FIFA World Cup in Qatar and this should not change in October. For Brazil, as mentioned, Premier League players are back, including their top two goalkeepers: Liverpool’s Alisson and Manchester City’s Ederson (though Weverton has been phenomenal). Real Madrid’s Vinicius Jr., who is in the form of his life, in back into the fold. Neymar Jr. is also back but suspended for their first game against Venezuela. Though there’s only one home match for Brazil this time around, Tite’s side has shown zero signs of slowing down. 

Argentina, for their part, won’t be able to count on Paulo Dybala, who remains sidelined with a thigh injury, but their star power remains. Lionel Messi scored a hat trick against Bolivia last month and passed Pele to become the all-time men’s leading scorer in South America (79 goals). The Copa America champions have a deep and strong squad. Messidependencia is no more. Yes, he is still their star but they now built an orchestra to go along with what was once a one-man band. Watch out for 21-year-old Julian Alvarez, who scored a brace, including a golazo, for River Plate against Boca Juniors last week. 

After the two giants, the race is uber-tight. Only seven points separate third-place Uruguay and ninth-place Chile and the biggest factor focuses on the usual suspect of a narrative: Whatever you do, don’t drop points at home. Uruguay’s mojo (garra charrua) was boosted last month as they snatched seven points from a possible nine, but they cannot take anything for granted. Their schedule this time around is daunting (Colombia, Argentina and Brazil) but the return of Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani is a massive boost. 

If it was down to talent alone, I think Ecuador would be second to Brazil in the continent. They are an embarrassment of riches. From the wonderful Gonzalo Plata to Villarreal’s Pervis Estupiñan, this team is young, hungry and relentlessly willing to attack at every opportunity. The problem is consistency. They are in a great spot right now and have a great chance to go perfect in October. Time will tell if their obscene talent pool can keep riding this wave.  

Colombia also recalls experience as Yerry Mina and Duvan Zapata return after missing out in September. Unsurprisingly, no James Rodriguez and equally as non-shocking is the presence of Radamel Falcao — the country’s all-time scorer who is having a fantastic start with Rayo Vallecano (three goals in four matches). Can he continue his good form?

Paraguay welcomes back Miguel Almiron while Peru enters this window at its absolute strongest from a roster perspective. Hopefully, Ricardo Gareca can finally do something with Raul Ruidiaz, who lights it up with Seattle Sounders but always struggles with the national team (tactics, formation and behind Gianluca Lapadula and Paolo Guerrero play a part.) They’ll face Chile in the Clasico del Pacifico in Lima to kick things off and La Roja, despite not having Edu Vargas due to an ankle injury, can rely on their modern cult icon: Ben Brereton Diaz. The Blackburn Rovers star, born in Stoke to an English father and Chilean mother, has become a revelation in Chile and when he wasn’t allowed to travel in September due to restrictions, Chileans lost their sense of being. The federation drew a formal complaint against Blackburn Rovers to FIFA, but it was later taken away after both club and country came to an agreement for this month. Watch out for the 22-year-old, who is the joint top scorer in the Championship. 

A shame — but one that’s usually the case — is that Bolivia and Venezuela are bottom of the group and I see little in that changing. However, a special mention to Marcelo Martins Moreno, the prolific Bolivian star who leads the scoring charts in this qualifying cycle. In a press conference, he mentioned the importance of this month for his country and said they must “play for everything and to think about winning every game.”

It was a call of action, a rally and a message of guile and vigor that permeates not just through the mountains of La Paz but also the entire region. This is it for South America and the World Cup. There is no tougher region. Every point is fought for and every tackle is felt and as we get closer to an outcome, I can’t help but wonder if this telenovela has a few more twists up its sleeve.  

CONMEBOL World Cup qualifiers: Standings

  1. Brazil (8-0-0, 24 PTS)
  2. Argentina (5-3-0, 18 PTS)
  3. Uruguay (4-3-2, 15 PTS)
  4. Ecuador (4-1-4, 13 PTS)
  5. Colombia (3-4-2, 13 PTS)
  6. Paraguay (2-5-2, 11 PTS)
  7. Peru (2-2-5, 8 PTS)
  8. Chile (1-4-4, 7 PTS)
  9. Bolivia (1-3-5, 6 PTS)
  10. Venezuela (1-1-7, 4 PTS)

CONMEBOL World Cup qualifiers: Schedule, how to watch

Thursday, Oct. 7 (Matchday 11)
Paraguay vs. Argentina, 7 p.m. ET, fuboTV (Try now)
Uruguay vs. Colombia, 7 p.m. ET, fuboTV (Try now)  
Venezuela vs. Brazil, 7:30 p.m. ET, fuboTV (Try now)  
Ecuador vs. Bolivia, 8:30 p.m. ET, fuboTV (Try now)  
Peru vs. Chile, 9 p.m. ET, fuboTV (Try now)

Sunday, Oct. 10 (Matchday 5 — rescheduled games)
Bolivia vs. Peru, 4 p.m. ET, fuboTV (Try now)  
Venezuela vs. Ecuador, 4:30 p.m. ET, fuboTV (Try now)  
Colombia vs. Brazil, 5 p.m. ET, fuboTV (Try now)  
Argentina vs. Uruguay, 7:30 p.m. ET, fuboTV (Try now)  
Chile vs. Paraguay, 8 p.m. ET, fuboTV (Try now)

Thursday, Oct. 14 (Matchday 12)
Bolivia vs. Paraguay, 4 p.m. ET, fuboTV (Try now)  
Colombia vs. Ecuador, 5 p.m. ET, fuboTV (Try now)  
Argentina vs. Peru, 7:30 p.m. ET, fuboTV (Try now)  
Chile vs. Venezuela, 8 p.m. ET, fuboTV (Try now)  
Brazil vs. Uruguay, 8:30 p.m. ET, fuboTV (Try now)





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