Football at its best

This evening sees all ten of South America’s footballing nations embark on the long qualification journey to the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Two years and eighteen matchdays from now, four teams will have earned their places in the group stage draw, with a fifth going into an intercontinental play-off.

In the opinion of this journalist, the South American section of World Cup qualifying is some of the greatest entertainment available in the sport. Only the World Cup itself can compete.

The format of the competition is ideal. Ten teams are lumped together in one large pool, with every country plays each another twice, home and away. The guarantee of eighteen matches allows for the smaller nations to plan and prepare, not only in football terms but in financial terms. It is no secret that since this qualifying format was introduced in the 1990s, the quality of the national teams of Ecuador, Bolivia and Venezuela has increased greatly.

For the bigger nations, a sterner test of ability, squad depth and mental toughness is impossible. Argentina are guaranteed to play rivals Brazil, Chile, Uruguay and Colombia twice each. They are guaranteed trips to the altitude of Quito and La Paz. South American sides arrive at World Cups with a profound knowledge of their own strengths and weaknesses.

Besides the practical reasons, South American qualifiers bring countless ties seeped in history. Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil, the continent’s footballing pioneers, have been playing against one another without interruption since the 1910s. Chile, Bolivia and Paraguay came along soon after.

The qualifying campaign’s first double-header contains some mouth-watering ties. However, none of the ten nations will be at full-strength. These matches are an entree to the feast of international football coming our way over the next two years.

The highlight of matchday one sees Chile face Brazil at the Estádio Nacional in Santiago.

It will be the first time the two teams have met in competition since 28 June last year, when Brazil eliminated Chile on penalties in the World Cup second round. A lot has changed since then.

Chile returned home from that defeat with their heads held high and turned their attentions to hosting the 2015 Copa América. They stormed to victory, beating Argentina in the final and winning their first ever piece of silverware.

Brazil, meanwhile, lost 7-1 to Germany.

With few changes, one should not expect any surprises from Jorge Sampaoli’s Chile team. It is largely the same side that played both the World Cup and the Copa América. However they are without Bayer Leverkusen midfielder Charles Aránguiz, who tore his Achilles tendon two months ago.

While the plaudits in this Chile side usually go to Arturo Vidal, Alexis Sánchez, Jorge Valdívia or Gary Medel, Sampaoli’s playing style is bound together by the industry of Aránguiz. His role in the team is just as important as anyone else’s, if not more so.

In their recent friendly against Paraguay, Chile looked vulnerable without Aránguiz. Sampaoli is likely to use Arturo Vidal in a deeper role to compensate, but the box-to-box quality of Aránguiz is irreplaceable.

To further complicate things, there are doubts over the fitness of Arturo Vidal and Alexis Sánchez. Both will start, but are unlikely to be 100%.

Brazil goes into this qualifying campaign with public opinion of the national team close to an all-time low. From the 7-1, Brazilian football went headfirst into Fifa-gate. Former president of the Brazilian FA (CBF) José Maria Marin was among the nine Fifa officials arrested in Zurich. He is currently awaiting extradition to the USA. His replacement at the CBF, Co-Conspirator #12, has refused to leave the country since Marin’s arrest.

Dunga’s team got people’s hopes up with an impressive run of wins in friendlies. Against such opposition as Colombia and France, Brazil flew to 10 wins in 10. But when push came to shove at the Copa América, Brazil crumbled.

To make matters worse, Neymar is suspended for Brazil’s two opening qualifiers after his involvement in a post-match scrap at the Copa. The past year has been ripe with examples of the national team’s dependency on the Barcelona forward. In a recent friendly against the USA, after testing a Neymar-less formation for only 45 minutes, Dunga capitulated and brought on his talisman to play the second half.

Colombia, also disappointing at the Copa América, go into this qualifying double-header desperate to reclaim some of the euphoria that surrounded their last World Cup qualifying campaign. They face Peru at home this evening in the intense Caribbean heat of Barranquilla.

Colombia’s coach José Pékerman has been forced into making changes to his starting eleven.

The big news is that Real Madrid’s James Rodríguez was cut from the squad due to injury. His replacement is likely to be Atlético Nacional’s Macnelly Torres, a classic playmaker with wonderful vision, though he has arrived with fitness problems of his own.

Full-backs Pablo Armero and Camilo Zúñiga, ever-present during Pékerman’s reign, both miss out. PSV’s Santiago Arias will get the nod at right-back, while Frank Fabra should start on the left despite making his international debut only last month.

The most interesting change will come in the centre of midfield. At the Copa América, with injuries to Abel Aguilar and Freddy Guarín, Pékerman played with two anchor men in midfield: Carlos Sánchez and Edwin Valencia. Defensively they were excellent. When they faced Brazil, Sánchez silenced Neymar as he has done before with Lionel Messi. The problem was they had no players who could pass out of midfield. With no-one to step out of that zone and play important angled passes to their attackers, Colombia were left flat and predictable. They scored only one goal in the entire tournament – and that came from a set-piece.

Aguilar is still out, but Guarín returns. However, Pékerman is likely to ignore the Internazionale man and hand a start to 22 year old Gustavo Cuéllar, a sturdy midfielder who reads the game well and has a good eye for a forward pass. The fact Cuéllar plays his club football in Barranquilla with Junior also cannot hurt.

 

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Contradictions and disguises

With the Copa Libertadores group stage underway, I have decided to take this opportunity to get back into regular blogging here on I like football me. My original plan today was to discuss the opening round of matches and give my opinion on some of the fascinating encounters we enjoyed this week.

Unfortunately though, football has to take a back seat after events on Wednesday evening in Huancayo. During the second half of an interesting match between Peruvian side Real Garcilaso and Brazilian champions Cruzeiro, which Garcilaso deservedly went on to win 2-1, Cruzeiro’s black midfielder Tinga (formerly of Borussia Dortmund) was greeted with monkey noises from the home fans whenever he touched the ball.

To see such behaviour coming from Peruvian fans, a people who have suffered greatly from oppression and persecution throughout their history, is upsetting. Even more so considering the abuse took place in Huancayo, a city with such a proud Quechua heritage.

However, the reality is that the black population in Peru is relatively small (approximately 2% of the total population) and racism towards Afro-Peruvians is not unheard of. Furthermore, the fact that Peruvians have historically had to endure similar prejudice themselves perhaps goes some way towards explaining the racist actions of those Garcilaso fans on Wednesday evening. In the same way that an abused child may grow up to become an abusive parent, the oppressed becoming oppressors isn’t a difficult concept to understand.

Of course, that doesn’t make Wednesday’s acts of racism any more or less deplorable, but it makes them more tragic.

While match reports from Peruvian sports media (as well as Conmebol’s official report, written by AFP) refused to make any reference to the monkey noises (the first mention of the incident in Peru came from sports daily Depor who managed to mix up Tinga and Dede, Cruzeiro’s two black players, in the article’s photograph), the reaction in Brazil was one of widespread disgust and outrage.

Several Brazilian footballers of various ethnic backgrounds expressed their solidarity with Tinga, while clubs, ministers and even President Dilma released statements condemning the incident and supporting punishment for Real Garcilaso. Alexandre Kalil, the outspoken president of Cruzeiro’s fierce local rivals Atlético, called the events “lamentable”, and claimed they “took away all of the pleasure in seeing Cruzeiro lose”.

Although the majority of reactions were refreshing to see, I couldn’t help but notice a streak of tribalism in some of the responses. Most were fairly subtle, but Cruzeiro director Alexandre Mattos chose to fight fire with fire, or in this case, fight racism with xenophobia, saying that Peru is a “small place in which football shouldn’t even exist”.

There is a clear contradiction here, as Brazilian society, especially Brazilian football, is rife with masked racism and frankly blatant homophobia. The idea of Brazil being a racial democracy is one that has been proved time and time again as a complete fallacy.

One encounters racism at almost every turn here in Brazil, albeit disguised. In football, black goalkeepers are often seen as unreliable, while black coaches are a rarity. Take the example of Cristóvão Borges, an intelligent and competent coach, who came in as a caretaker and took Vasco da Gama to a second place finish in the Brasileirao, was fired the following year and couldn’t find a job. Or Andrade, who was also a caretaker coach at Flamengo, won the Brazilian championship in 2009 and ended up unemployed. Contrast that to white managers like Joel Santana, Adilson Batista, Caio Júnior and Dorival Júnior, who are bounced around the biggest clubs in the country, despite their relatively poor records.

Outside the realm of football, there is Rede Globo’s “comedy” show Zorra Total, shown at primetime every Saturday night, which features a recurring sketch in which two actors in blackface ridicule poor black women.

Homophobia is also common, but far more obvious. During Brazilian football matches, it is common for one set of fans to call opposition players viados – an extremely pejorative homophobic slur – in chants that are often loud enough to be easily heard by people watching at home on television. Unfortunately, there is an institutional difference between racism and homophobia in Brazil. Racism is illegal, while homophobia is not legally considered a hate crime.

The objective of this blog is not to undermine the severity of what happened in Huancayo, or any feelings of genuine disgust from Brazilians, but simply to point out that this is an issue that exists all over Latin America, not just in Peru, and is increasingly prominent in Brazil.

Hopefully, Conmebol will arise from their slumber and, considering the influence that the Brazilian champions wield among the organisation, hand out serious sanctions to Real Garcilaso. One doesn’t hold much hope however, as this is the same organisation that last year was quoted as saying that Olimpia’s Salustiano Candia calling Newell’s forward Maxi Urruti a “black piece of shit” was not evidence of racism.

I’ll talk about football next week. Honest.

Scrambling for spots

With Tuesday’s dead rubber draw between Peru and Bolivia, the South American qualifiers for the 2014 World Cup came to a close. Compared to that of other continental confederations around the globe, the current qualifying system used by Conmebol is the most entertaining, the most competitive and it serves as the best preparation for major tournaments.

All ten of Conmebol’s member nations (nine this time around, with Brazil qualified as World Cup hosts) compete in one group, and the guaranteed fixture list of home and away games provides a stern test for the better nations and a superb chance for development for the weaker nations. For proof, one needs look no further than Ecuador and Venezuela, once the continent’s whipping-boys. Ecuador has now qualified for its third World Cup since 2002 and although Venezuela narrowly missed out on qualification, their steady progress makes them strong candidates to make the 2018 finals.

In the absence of Brazil, Argentina unsurprisingly topped the group. Seeing as they will be the “home” team in most of the southern venues at next year’s tournament, and considering their wealth of attacking talent (including Lionel Messi, someone you may have heard of), Argentina must be considered among the favourites to win in Brazil.

Colombia finished in second place and qualify for their first World Cup finals since France 98. Much has been made of this Colombia side (with good reason when you consider their front three of James Rodríguez, Teo Gutiérrez and Radamel Falcao), but comparisons with the golden generation of the early 90s are unfair and invalid. Not only did that team have more quality in more areas of the field, they also had to deal with inhumane external pressure that culminated in the tragic murder of el Caballero del Fútbol Andrés Escobar after their elimination from the 1994 World Cup.

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Speaking exclusively about matters on the pitch, the current Colombia team is undoubtedly talented, but also dangerously imbalanced – a trade-off for having the superb Radamel Falcao in attack. While Falcao is probably the world’s best penalty box finisher, he is often only as good as the service he receives. When Colombia’s Argentinian coach José Pékerman started to fill his side with attacking options to feed Falcao, they started winning. However, this onus on attack leaves them vulnerable in defence, even more so with their creaking centre-back corps.

The 3-3 draw against Chile in Barranquilla was a microcosm of this current side. Pékerman started the match with three central defenders in an attempt to contain Chile’s attacking threats, but he still selected James Rodríguez and Teo to support Falcao. The result was a completely disjointed team, isolated forwards and a back line that Chile’s forwards repeatedly outpaced, racking up a 3-0 lead by half-time.

With the Barranquilla crowd spurring them on, Colombia came out fighting for the second half and overloaded Chile, playing a physical, high-intensity style. Amazingly, they drew the match 3-3.

Chile, who qualified in third place, suffer from many of the same problems. Under Jorge Sampaoli they play the most attractive attacking football on the continent, but are frequently undone in defence.

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Sampaoli rose to prominence as the coach of Universidad de Chile, who entertained the continent in 2011 and -12 with their relentless attacking and haphazard defending. Sampaoli – a cross between Marcelo Bielsa, Pep Guardiola and a furious chimpanzee – has translated that system word for word to the national team, and they are sure to be the neutral’s favourite next year.

Looking at World Cup 2014 odds, Chile could be a good outside bet for reaching the semi-finals.

Perhaps unfairly regarded as a surprise entrant, Ecuador sealed the fourth and final automatic qualifying spot. Their Colombian coach Reginaldo Rueda has built a solid unit capable of causing problems to any team, spearheaded by excellent wingers Antonio Valencia and Jefferson Montero.

With the tragic death of Cristián “Chucho” Benítez earlier in the year, Ecuador had to overcome a particularly tough hurdle in order to qualify. Besides being a close friend to many of the squad and an irreplaceable dressing room presence, Chucho was also crucial to Ecuador’s style on the pitch.

Playing as a second striker behind Felipe Caicedo, Chucho would work the channels and frustrate defences, often creating chances out of nothing. Ecuador have no-one else in that mould, and while they struggled to adept emotionally and technically, they very nearly lost their place in the top four.

Current Copa América holders Uruguay finished in fifth place and will play off against Jordan for a spot in Brazil. Despite a disappointing campaign, I fully expect them to qualify, but I will talk more about them another day.

With teams around the world scrambling for places in the group stage draw, hosts Brazil and their coach Luiz Felipe Scolari are putting the finishing touches to their preparation. The Seleção played two friendlies during this international break, two 2-0 wins over South Korea and Zambia in the Far East.

It is clear that the side that won the Confederations Cup in July will form the base of their team at the World Cup, with several fringe players fighting for the final spots in the 23-man squad. These friendlies have more or less confirmed the presence of Jefferson and Diego Cavalieri as back-up goalkeepers, Dante and Dedé as the reserve centre-backs and Maxwell as Marcelo’s understudy at left-back.

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Liverpool’s defensive midfielder Lucas Leiva made an excellent return to the national side, and he may be in with a chance of a starting berth ahead of Luiz Gustavo. It doesn’t look like good news for Lucas Moura or Alexandre Pato though, as both were disappointing, slated by Brazilian journalists and will probably miss the final cut.

By my reckoning, there are only two available spots in Brazil’s World Cup squad: a centre-forward (most likely Fred on his return from injury, possibly Diego Costa) and a reserve attacking midfielder. If I were Felipão, I would be looking at either Liverpool’s Phillipe Coutinho or Atlético-MG’s Diego Tardelli.

É Galo na final

Apologies for not updating the blog yesterday, with the unprecedented amount of stoppages and a penalty shootout to boot, Wednesday evening’s semi-final sapped me of all energy. After the final whistle, when I would usually be writing, I was sleeping off a heavy Copa Libertadores comedown. For those who can read Portuguese, I recommend Idelber Avelar’s wonderful account over at Impedimento.

In the end, Atlético-MG overcame the odds and a two-goal deficit to eliminate Newell’s Old Boys on penalties in one of the most gripping and tense football matches in recent memory.

Whoever said that ‘penalty shootouts are a lottery’ has no idea what they are talking about. Hours of study and practice go into penalty kicks, while the mental strength and emotional state of the takers also plays a huge part. There is nothing random about it. Atlético goalkeeper Víctor made another penalty save at a crucial moment, and if Galo do go on and win the trophy, he will rightly be remembered as the hero.

Image: UOL

Spare a thought for Newell’s however, who were unlucky not to go through. The Argentinians were superior throughout the first leg, and they were the better team in the second half on Wednesday, at least until the power failure. Head coach Gerardo Martino now leaves the club after two good years in charge, saying he will take an “indefinite rest”. He deserves it.

Coming at such a critical moment in the tie (with 15 minutes remaining in the second half of the second leg) the floodlight failure could have helped or hindered either of the two sides. In the end, it helped Atlético.

With his team struggling to create any chances against a very well-organised Newell’s defence, Atlético coach Cuca used the pause to alter their offensive tactics. He ordered right-back Marcos Rocha to push forward more (he barely crossed the half-way line over the two legs, due to the threat of Newell’s left-winger Maxi Rodríguez) and brought on unpopular forwards Guilherme and Alecsandro in place of fan favourites Diego Tardelli and Bernard.

It’s impossible to know exactly how decisive his changes were (even though Guilherme scored the vital second goal), but Cuca has to be commended for taking the risk.

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Conmebol has announced that the second leg of the final will be played at the Mineirão, instead of the Estádio Independência, Atlético’s current stadium of choice. This is due to the competition’s rule that the final must be played at a venue with a capacity of over 40,000 people. The Independência holds just over 23,000.

The rule is clear, but Conmebol also announced that the first leg will be played in the Estadio Defensores del Chaco, which holds only 36,000. With any luck, both teams will be allowed to play their respective home legs at their preferred stadiums, and Conmebol can do away with this pointless regulation. However, this is Conmebol we are talking about…

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With Wednesday’s 2-1 loss against Bahia, São Paulo completed a run of four consecutive defeats at the Estádio Morumbi – for the first time in their 77 year history. But I thought that the problem was meant to be Ney Franco?

With Muricy unavailable due to his high salary demands, club president Juvenal Juvêncio has brought back another former coach in Paulo Autuori. While the old man at the end of the corridor remains in control, it is difficult to see how things can change.

Manure-handlers, projectiles and Hamilton Ricard: South America update

For the past few months, you would be forgiven for thinking that ILFM solely focused on football here in Brazil and nowhere else. However, the fact is that I aim to write about all types of South American football, Argentine, Uruguayan, Venezuelan… You name it, I have a passion for it.

The remarkably exciting 2011 Campeonato Brasileiro season certainly took centre stage here on this blog, but now that it has been concluded, allow me to bring you up to date with everything else that’s going on in this beautiful continent. Continue reading Manure-handlers, projectiles and Hamilton Ricard: South America update

Game of the Week: Vasco 1×1 Universidad de Chile

The Copa Sul-Americana (or Sudamericana in the Spanish-speaking majority of South America) is a rather odd tournament. It is highly under-valued all over the continent, but particularly in Brazil, where the midweek games at key points in the tournaments are seen as little more than unwelcome distractions. For example this year, when São Paulo, Botafogo and Flamengo were eliminated in the space of 24 hours at the last-16 stage, there was some immediate surprise, but it was very quickly forgotten.

Think of it as the South American version of the Europa League, but with considerably longer travel times.

The tournament got a little boost in the past few years after CONMEBOL decided to award an extremely valuable place to the following year’s Copa Libertadores group stage. As a result, a number of the continent’s ‘lesser’ sides shifted their focus towards the Copa Sul-Americana and away from their own tough domestic campaign, in search of an ‘easy’ route into the Copa Libertadores.

However a close look at this year’s semi-finalists reveals an intriguing anomaly. All four of the teams still alive in the competition are already guaranteed (or almost guaranteed in Liga de Quito’s case) qualification to the 2012 Copa Libertadores through their own respective domestic successes. Does this mean the Copa Sul-Americana is becoming more and more important to South America’s big guns? Quite possibly. Continue reading Game of the Week: Vasco 1×1 Universidad de Chile

World Cup 2014: The Road to Rio begins

With just over 1,000 days until the Final in the Maracanã, CONMEBOL’s nine nations (excluding Brazil) begin their march towards the World Cup with the first round of qualifying matches taking place this week. With every side in action on Friday and again on Tuesday (even Brazil have friendly matches on those days) we have plenty of thrilling football to look forward to. Let’s take a look at Friday’s four qualifiers, and cast a quick glance over the 2014 hosts and their friendly in Costa Rica.

Continue reading World Cup 2014: The Road to Rio begins