By Marcus Haydon.
The 2026 World Cup may be the best part of three years away, but South America’s marathon qualifying obligates an early start. With FIFA’s controversial decision to expand the tournament from 32 to 48 teams, Conmebol now has two additional qualification spots. This is good news for those looking to qualify, but does potentially remove a large chunk of jeopardy from what has arguably been one of world football’s most competitive qualification formats. This week sees the first two matchdays of 18 that will take place between now and the end of 2025.
Of the ten sides competing, six will now qualify directly, with the seventh claiming an intercontinental play-off spot. Despite the expansion, Conmebol have decided to retain the same round-robin format, though it’s not inconceivable this may come under scrutiny in the future with the likes of Brazil and Argentina – both almost certain qualifiers – potentially seeing their time better spent playing lucrative matches elsewhere in the world. With these two teams finishing with a margin of 29 and 23 points over 8th place respectively last time out, the risk of dead rubbers towards the end of qualifying could damage the spectacle.
In previous editions, qualification would start after a Copa América, offering coaches the chance to experiment during that tournament. This time round, with the shift in dates for Qatar, there’s no such luxury and teams will need to try and hit the ground running. With six of the 18 rounds being played between now and the end of the year there will be little time to catch breath, before attention turns to Olympic Qualification and the Copa América in 2024.
¡El sistema de clasificación en las mejores Eliminatorias del mundo! ¡Rumbo a la Copa Mundial FIFA 2026! ✍️
— CONMEBOL.com (@CONMEBOL) August 25, 2023
Paraguay v Peru
Colombia v Venezuela
Argentina v Ecuador
Uruguay v Chile
Brazil v Bolivia
Bolivia v Argentina
Ecuador v Uruguay
Venezuela v Paraguay
Chile v Colombia
Peru v Brazil
The leading contenders…
Football moves on quickly and after the euphoria of lifting the World Cup last December and the jubilant homecoming friendlies that followed, Argentina start the defence of their title. While star man Lionel Messi remains on the scene, he will be pushing 40 by the time the next World Cup arrives, so the challenge will be in managing the transition to a future without him. For now, both player and coach are focussed on his continued involvement and enjoying the final flourishes of his remarkable career.
Elsewhere the squad remains familiar, with just a sprinkling of personnel changes since Qatar. Hopes are high that Alejandro Garnacho can inject some fresh ideas into the side having earned his debut during the June friendlies. The defence would also benefit from some renewal, with Nicolás Otamendi yet to be supplanted. Argentina start with a tough game at home to Ecuador, but La Scaloneta will have few concerns about booking a spot to defend their title in 2026.
For Brazil, the first half of the year has been spent wondering who the coach will be. With the preferred candidate Carlo Ancelotti not yet available, Fluminense’s Fernando Diniz has been given the gig until the Copa América next year. At that point – it is hoped – the Italian will be available to take over. The arrangement is unorthodox, and also says much about the disappointing status of Brazilian coaches, with the CBF clearly preferring to wait for Ancelotti than plump for someone from the limited list of domestic candidates. Diniz, for his part, will be determined to show that he is more than just a placeholder.
Recent friendly defeats to Morocco and Senegal were unwelcome but did more to damage the image of the previous interim coach Ramon Menezes than raise any serious concerns about a more widespread malaise. With Diniz now in charge, Brazil should be fun to watch, with his Fluminense side characterised by their attacking improvisation and combination play – although he has little time to implant his ideas. Vinicius Junior’s injury has forced him to withdraw, and questions surround the fitness of Neymar, who arrives without any competitive football since February. Also absent is Lucas Paquetá, who Diniz has left out while he is subject to an investigation into potential betting rule breaches. Brazil have plenty of depth though and their start appears favourable, facing Bolivia at home and Peru away, giving Diniz the chance to get off on the right foot.
Lista anunciada! ✍️🇧🇷
O treinador Fernando Diniz divulgou os 23 nomes que integrarão o elenco da Seleção Brasileira Masculina nas duas primeiras rodadas das Eliminatórias da Copa do Mundo 2026.
O primeiro jogo será contra a Bolívia e está marcado para o dia 8 de setembro, no… pic.twitter.com/j46QSt8Med
— CBF Futebol (@CBF_Futebol) August 18, 2023
The chasing pack…
Away from the two giants is where qualification will be most hotly contested. Having qualified for the last World Cup, Ecuador and Uruguay are again expected to be in the running. The Ecuadorians have made an intriguing appointment in Félix Sánchez, the Spaniard who took Qatar to a disappointing showing on home soil, but who has lots of experience in advancing players from youth football into the senior team. They idea is that he will help the team develop more tactical flexibility and they showed some interesting features during friendlies played earlier in the year. The team will first have to overcome the three-point penalty imposed due to the Byron Castillo false documentation affair and are without key defender Piero Hincapié through injury. If that wasn’t enough, their first game involves a trip to Buenos Aires and a date with the world champions.
Another side with a new coach are Uruguay, who brought in Marcelo Bielsa after a long courtship during the first half of the year. Bielsa used the June friendlies to experiment and a number those players have retained their spots, with goalkeeper Sergio Rochet the only player over 30 to be included. The change personnel is dramatic with legendary figures Luis Suárez and Edinson Cavani left out, captain Diego Godín having retired, José María Giménez and Fernando Muslera both suspended, and an injury list that includes Ronald Araújo, Rodrigo Bentancur and Giorgian de Arrascaeta. They open their campaign at home to Chile, another side with whom Bielsa introduced a raft of younger players when he first took over. The revolution should be interesting to watch, but may be an uneasy transition for La Celeste, whose footballing identity has tended to be reactive. Bielsa has already unsettled some sections of the media with his late announcing of the squad, but will be hoping that a couple of days on the training ground will be enough to impart his ideas.
— Selección Uruguaya (@Uruguay) September 4, 2023
For Chile, the mood is one of trepidation, with envious glances being flashed across the Andes when Uruguay snapped up their popular former coach Bielsa. One of Bielsa’s former assistants, Eduardo Berizzo, is now in charge of La Roja, but enjoys far less popularity than El Loco. Although an impressive communicator, Berizzo’s record with Paraguay and now Chile has been far from impressive and, even acknowledging the dearth of talent coming through, many feel he has been slow to lead the transition away from the country’s waning golden generation. The likes of Gary Medel (36), Alexis Sánchez (34), Charles Aránguiz (34) and Arturo Vidal (36) are all still on the scene, with Berizzo hoping they still have something left in the tank. How effectively he can renew the side as qualification progresses will go a long way to determining whether he remains in his role and Chile make it to the finals.
Another side who missed out on Qatar, but who will fancy their chances this time round, are Colombia. Now led by the Argentinian Néstor Lorenzo, assistant to former coach José Pékerman, early signs are of a side with an identity and some notable emerging talent. It’s only Lorenzo’s second job as a head coach, but at 58 he’s not short of experience and is well respected in Colombia for his work under Pékerman. They won in Germany during the June friendlies and will be backed by a public lifted by the success of the women’s team at the recent World Cup. Discussions around the squad have focussed on whether the experienced figures of James Rodríguez, Juan Fernando Quintero and Yerry Mina will be at the level required given the limited football they have seen in recent months. What is encouraging for Lorenzo is that he appears to have some good alternatives up his sleeve, plus young talent on the rise. Up front, Luis Díaz looks ready to assume the mantle of the team’s attacking talisman, with veteran Radamel Falcao not called upon.
— Selección Colombia (@FCFSeleccionCol) August 31, 2023
For Paraguay, expectations were dealt a huge blow with the news that Julio Enciso had suffered a long-term knee injury while training with his club Brighton. While it’s true that Enciso is still finding his feet in a Paraguay shirt, his progress at club level had generated a huge amount of enthusiasm back home and his absence represents a huge blow for a side that has tended to struggle in opening up opponents. The side is without major changes from the last campaign and will be built on a tough, uncompromising defence, complemented with flashes of inspiration from Miguel Almirón going forward. Coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto is likely to set his team up to be defensively solid, with Paraguay scoring just 12 goals in 18 matches last time out. Amongst the younger faces, the emergence of Diego Gómez – now a teammate of Lionel Messi at Inter Miami – is encouraging, as is the progress of tricky Matías Segovia at Botofogo. La Albirroja begin with games against Peru and Venezuela, so will need a good start.
Defeat to Australia in the playoff to reach Qatar marked the end of an era for Peru, with popular coach Ricardo Gareca opting not to stay on. Gareca was replaced by former international Juan Reynoso, who is a serious and experienced coach with titles in Peru and Mexico to his name. His task will be to refresh a side that has been reliant on the stars of the Gareca era and to maintain the levels of belief that his Argentinian predecessor managed to impart. For now, the flow of new talent seems modest, with 39-year-old forward Paolo Guerrero still likely to lead the line. Reynoso has opened the door to youngsters such as Piero Quispe, Jhamir D’Arrigo and Joao Grimaldo – all still playing domestically in Peru – and time will tell whether they can make an impact. Other Gareca stalwarts Christian Cueva and Gianluca Lapadula will be enforced absences due to fitness problems.
— La Bicolor (@SeleccionPeru) September 1, 2023
The two remaining sides, Bolivia and Venezuela, will have to surprise if they are to claim a top seven spot, but neither should be considered no-hopers. Bolivia can count on an experienced coach in Gustavo Costas and will be buoyed by the fortunes of Bolívar in the Copa Libertadores, where they unexpectedly reached the quarter-final stage. Domestic Bolivian football has nevertheless been plunged into disarray with the unearthing of a serious match-fixing scandal, which threatens to distract from the task at hand. As ever, though, the altitude of La Paz will be key and with around 20 points from the 18 qualifiers typically enough to earn you a top seven spot, a strong home record could play them into contention. Nevertheless, a big improvement on previous showings will be required.
Venezuela feel like they have suffered a series of false dawns over the years as they go in search of a first ever World Cup appearance. A strong performance in 2014 qualifying didn’t quite propel them to the tournament, and more recently the long-term planning of José Pékerman ended in the Argentinian’s departure earlier this year following a fall-out with the federation. But despite the issues at an institutional level, not to mention the difficult economic and social conditions the country continues to face, there is still some talent creeping through. Their latest coach, Fernando Batista, another Argentinian – one of the seven coaching the ten Conmebol sides – worked under Pékerman and has managed some encouraging results in friendlies, albeit against modest rivals. If things are to go well, the opening games against Colombia and Paraguay will need to yield points, with a big crowd expected in Maturín for the opening home game.