crumbs of comfort
Crumbs of comfort are not easy to find for South America following the 2018 World Cup. A fourth consecutive European win, with three of those triumphs emerging from all-European Finals, and no South American interest beyond the quarter-finals. There is no doubt it was all a huge disappointment.
But, on the other hand, eventual winners France were made to work for a narrow group win against Peru, who until comparatively recently were the whipping boys on their own continent, especially away from home. Peru performed with credit in Russia and gave another indication of South America’s strength in depth. With a young side they can hope to be back, and better, in 2022.
First, of course, they will have to qualify, which may not be easy. Altitude aside, Bolivia would not seem to have a great deal to contribute to the next qualification campaign, while Ecuador were the early leaders in the race to Russia, only to fall away alarmingly. They are currently negotiating with Hernan Dario Gomez, the Colombian who took them to their World Cup debut in 2002 and who was in charge of Panama at this year’s finals
Elsewhere, Venezuela will have dreams of making it to a first-ever World Cup, building their hopes around the group of players who reached the Final of last year’s Under-20 tournament, Chile have already began their rebuilding process and Paraguay have some interesting attacking midfielders to add to their customary resilience.
However, none of these sides are likely to be serious challengers to win the World Cup in 2022. But four nations are entitled to believe that, with a break or two along the way, they might have enough to put in a challenge.
One is Colombia, who let themselves down in their loss to England. Their 2018 tragedy was that the combined playmaking talents of James Rodriguez and Juan Quintero were only really available for one game – the 3-0 win over Poland. On the plus side, they would seem to have recuperated Quintero after his wilderness years, and he and Rodriguez could hit a peak together in Qatar.
This type of midfield quality is vital because one area in which South America has clearly fallen behind the best Europeans is in the production of midfielders capable of running the game from box to box.
Uruguay look best equipped to meet this challenge. Although Rodrigo Bentancur was not always at his best in Russia, he showed flashes of genuine quality, Lucas Torreira has emerged as an all-pitch problem solver and they also have Federico Valverde once he has fully recovered from the injury problems that cost him momentum earlier in the year. The strike pairing of Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani will surely be past their best in 2022, so much may depend on the development of Maxi Gomez as a replacement. But in terms of midfield resources, Uruguay should be stronger in Qatar than they were in Russia.
Brazil must envy Uruguay’s strength in this area. Part of the story of their Russian experience lies in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to shoehorn Phillippe Coutinho into operating as a midfield all-rounder. Some midfield hopes have disappointed on contact with top-class European football but perhaps Arthur, the Iniesta-lookalike just signed by Barcelona, will be different. If so, Brazil could win the second Asian World Cup – just as they did in the first in 2002.
And then there is Argentina. Maybe their 2022 side will be built around the talents of Giovani Lo Celso, a playmaker who has been learning his trade in France with Paris Saint-Germain.
Lo Celso was one of just three members of Argentina’s squad who saw no action in Russia – which was somewhat curious as he had looked particularly impressive in their only warm-up friendly, against Haiti. He could be an important player in Qatar, but first Argentina have to get there. And as it stands, they have no coach and no clear plan.
Fifteen of the squad that went to Russia are over 30 so a complete rebuilding process will be needed and there is currently a dearth of outstanding young players in many positions.
Things could get worse before they get better.
One area in which South America has clearly fallen behind the best Europeans is in the production of midfielders capable of running the game from box to box
Hope...Giovani Lo Celso (left) with Lionel Messi
Future...Venezuela’s Adalberto Penaranda (centre)