Lessons to learn for Colombia & Ecuador
World Cup qualification in South America came to a close with only one change from the previous two campaigns. Brazil, Paraguay and, in the end, Argentina made it through once again, while Uruguay claimed fifth spot, the play-off position, for the third time running. The sole modification is that Chile have qualified instead of Ecuador.
This brings to a halt - we shall find out if only temporarily - the rise of teams from the north of continent. Colombia made it to the World Cups of 1990, '94 and '98, and Ecuador were at the last two. This time they have missed out, and since the spotlight will be off them for a while, now would seem to be an appropriate moment to have a look at their progress.
In the case of Ecuador, that progress has been immense. There were some depressing scenes just over a week ago after they suffered a last-minute defeat at home to Uruguay. As the players left the pitch they were abused by some of the crowd in Quito.
Supporters everywhere can have short memories, and can be astonishingly quick to take success for granted. It was only 20 years ago that Ecuador were giving signs that they were not merely making up the numbers.
In such a short space it is nothing short of extraordinary that they have been to two World Cups, and performed with honour in both - but problems are now building up.
Ecuador ended their qualifying campaign with a 1-0 defeat in Chile
The main reason they failed to make it this time was their inability to replace centre-forward Agustin Delgado, who was nicknamed of 'el Tin' but who was worth gold to the team.
He may have had an unhappy spell at Southampton - and we might ask why the club bought him at a time when his knee problems were public knowledge - but Delgado was a class act, capable of grabbing goals from nowhere at the highest level.
In this campaign, Ecuador had plenty of times when the ball was flashing back and forth across the opposing penalty area with no one to apply the finishing touch. Burly Carlos Tenorio's career never quite took off, perhaps due to injuries. And Felipe Caicedo is a frustrating figure, who produces the odd moment of quality on the turn, but supplies little in the penalty area.
Birmingham's Cristian Benitez is dangerous and Jefferson Montero, with his ability to drift past his marker on either flank, is a potential genius. But in addition to the hole at centre-forward, there are problems at the end of the pitch.
The wonderful centre-back partnership of the classy Ivan Hurtado and the gangling Giovanny Espinoza is now past its sell by date. The goalkeepers are closer to 40 than 30, and the current first-choice is a naturalised Argentine.
The team's outstanding midfielder, Edison Mendez, once the baby of the side, has now passed 30. In short, there are plenty of key players who need replacing and with a population of little more than 13 million, this will not be an easy task.
Ecuador's fear, then, is that their successful period might be like that of Peru in the 70s, Colombia in the 90s or even Bolivia in 1994 - one generation and out.
In the case of Colombia the success should have been easier to sustain. Colombia's population is bigger than Argentina's. The country has a number of urban centres with well established clubs. They should be doing better.
For the third successive campaign they finished just off the play-off position, but this was the least convincing of the three. In the previous two they went into the last game with hopes of making it though. But before last Wednesday's win away to Paraguay they were out of the race - and the fact that they won their only away game when already eliminated does not show them in a good light.
Colombia showed what they are capable of with a 2-0 win over Paraguay in Asuncion
So what has gone wrong? Picking 56 players in 18 games is not a good sign. It seems to indicate that the country produces plenty of players, but they are much of a muchness. Players are not going on to greatness.
When I was in Colombia last year local journalists were stressing their view that too any players lose motivation after signing their first big contract.
I would add that there seems to be an ideological confusion. The fact that they blew up under pressure makes it easy to forget how good the 1994 side really was - their record going into the World Cup was one defeat in 34 games, a run which included a 5-0 win away to Argentina in qualification.
Amid the tragedy of '94, with the execution of Andres Escobar, the trauma went deep. The hypnotic, short passing style of that team appeared discredited, and more physical, less lyrical players were produced.
They have usually persevered with a number 10 figure, to replace the frizzy haired Carlos Valderrama. But they have tended to throw the shirt at Giovanny Hernandez or Macnelly Torres and given them total responsibility for setting up the play.
It is the privatisation of creation - forgetting that the early 90s side were much better at moving the ball collectively. In other words, Valderrama functioned because he was surrounded with players who were on a similar wavelength, with both the technical gifts and the ideological commitment to the short passing game.
To go forward, then, it would be nice to see Colombia take a step backwards and rediscover part of their own footballing identity. A total of 14 goals in 18 rounds of World Cup qualifiers tells its own story.
But there is one country from the north of the continent which is undoubtedly making strides. Venezuela enjoyed their best ever campaign, a last day 0-0 draw away to Brazil leaving them just two points off the play-off position.
Even more impressive is that this year coach Cesar Farias has taken the opportunity to promote several of his Under-20 side, who performed so well recently in the World Youth Cup. Seven of them played at senior level in the qualification campaign - so excellent results have been achieved while renewing the side.
Unfortunately, though, it will not be easy to keep the momentum going - for Venezuela and the other sides who missed out on the World Cup, the next competitive matches are not until the 2011 Copa America, some 20 months away.
Comments on the piece in the space provided. Questions on South American football to email@example.com, and I'll pick out a couple for next week.
From last week's postbag:
Q) With the U-20 World Cup just over, and Brazil having lost, I can't help but think many of the team will probably not make it big. Which of the current crop of players who've just played in the U-20's for Brazil do you feel are destined for a big future in the game?
A) I think they were unlucky to lose, but that's not the point really - the objective is to develop players for the future of the senior side. Who might get there? The captain Giuliano is an excellent midfielder, talented and versatile and I can see him making the grade. Alex Teixeira was the star turn in Egypt, with some magic moments in one against one situations - we'll have to see with him, but he's certainly one to follow. The big centre back Rafael Toloi is a good prospect, and I was very impressed by the way that keeper Rafael recovered from a howler against Australia.
Q) I am a Liverpool and was delighted to see Insua get recognition for his good start to season with his first call up and cap for Argentina.
My question is what was your opinion of how he got on?
Did he get much press back in Argentina before / after the call up? I guess being in the same side as the Argentine captain would have helped?
A) He's known in Argentina mostly for his displays at under-20 level. He played in the side that won the 2007 World Youth Cup and was captain of the side that failed dismally to qualify for this year's version - where he played at centre back as well as left-back.
To be honest, I thought his selection in the home game against Peru was one of Maradona's more bizarre decisions. It was a game where he needed an attacking presence from his full-backs - Datolo of Napoli could have supplied it, but after scoring two in three games he was dropped and Insua came in. The problem with Insua, I think, is that at the top level he lacks pace at full-back, and is not commanding enough for centre-back.
Maradona now has to sift through his options and focus on a squad for the World Cup. It wouldn't surprise me, given the lack of top quality full-backs (both flanks) if he goes with a back three. Insua might come into contention as the left-sided centre-back, though I think it's unlikely. Maradona is a big Heinze fan, and that would seem to be his position.