Higher hopes for South America's World Cup players
World Cup qualification in Europe has a few good games along with plenty of mismatches. In South America, meanwhile, every game in the long campaign is resonant with rivalry and relevance.
The best development in the history of the continent's national teams was the birth of the Copa America in 1916 and its frequent, at times annual, staging in the early years. It did much to spread interest in the game and raise standards.
The second best was the inauguration in 1996 of the current World Cup qualification format, one big group with all 10 countries (in this case nine because as 2014 hosts Brazil have an automatic place) playing each other home and away.
Where previously there could be gaps of years between competitive games, for the last 17 years there has been a guaranteed calendar of regular meaningful matches. This has done wonders for the less traditional nations, and has led to a happy state of affairs where South American football has no minnows. No one is merely making up the numbers.
It makes the qualification campaign so dramatic that at the end of a round some people could do with an injection of oxygen.
And there is another reason for calling for oxygen - as an aid to combat the effects of altitude. Visits to Ecuador (where Quito is 2,800 metres above sea level) and especially Bolivia (where La Paz is 3,600 metres) are notoriously difficult for unacclimatised opponents, who lose a significant part of their athletic capacity in the rarefied air.
This is clearly not ideal. But home advantage is part of the game, and there seems to be no compelling evidence that altitude represents a significant health risk - extreme heat would appear to offer much more of a threat. Altitude, then, will continue to be part of the equation. Opponents have to plan for a trip to La Paz - an issue which will prove especially important in next month's two rounds.
Sergio Markarian talks to Peru international goalkeeper Diego Penny. Photo: Getty
Bolivia are at home in both. They have already drawn away to Argentina. But realistically the only chance they have of hauling themselves into contention for a World Cup slot is to win all their remaining matches in La Paz, starting with these two in October. They face opponents who are also desperate for points. First come Peru, still trailing the pack despite picking up four points in the two recent rounds. Then it is the turn of Uruguay, who earned just one point from this month's matches and dropped from second in the table to fourth.
Life now gets tough for the Uruguayans, who so far have played five games at home and only two away. Four days before the trip up the Andes to face Bolivia they travel to Argentina - possibly the two most challenging fixtures of the entire campaign, with a schedule that leaves next to no time to plan for the effects of altitude.
Uruguay's only option in Bolivia is to arrive in La Paz as close as possible to kick off time, play a cautious game, waste some time (the visiting goalkeeper usually picks up a yellow card in these matches) and hope one of their strikers can nick a goal on the counter-attack.
Peru, meanwhile, should be capable of something a bit more ambitious. Lima, the country's capital where most of the major clubs are based, is at sea level. But Peru also has a mountainous region, with clubs based at altitudes similar to that of La Paz. For this game, national team coach Sergio Markarian can call on a group of players already acclimatised to the conditions, and he will start working with them in the next few days.
Cienciano of Cuzco supply the vastly experienced centre back Santiago Acasiete, recently back from Spain, and the impressive central midfielder Edwin Retamoso. Newly promoted neighbours Real Garcilaso have a striker in fine form, the gloriously named Andy Pando. And another altitude outfit, Sport Huancayo, have a competent goalkeeper in Joel Pinto - the star of the show recently when Huancayo won a surprise 1-0 win away to Nolberto Solano's Universitario, for whom English goalkeeper Mark Cook was making his debut.
The extra speed of the ball through the rarefied air makes altitude especially challenging for unacclimatised keepers, and so the presence of Pinto could be significant.
Down the spine of his side, Markarian has the option of selecting altitude specialists for the trip to Bolivia. Presumably he will revert to his normal line up for the away game against Paraguay four days later. That, of course, is if injuries allow him to do so.
At full strength Peru can call on an impressive array of attacking power - centre forward Paolo Guerrero with Claudio Pizarro operating behind him, Jefferson Farfan marauding down the right and Juan Manuel Vargas rampaging down the left. But in recent rounds at least one of the quartet has always been absent or clearly short of full fitness. With them all firing together Peru still have an outside chance of qualifying for their first World Cup since 1982. But they must start picking up points away from home.
Peru have become a notoriously soft touch on their travels. In a run stretching across more than seven years, they have managed to lose all of their last 16 away World Cup qualifiers, scoring 8 and conceding 48.
So if the venue is high up in the Andes when they meet Bolivia next month, the stakes are higher still. Neither side can afford to lose.
Bolivia need all six points from their two home games. Peru will probably be happy with four from their two away fixtures. And if they can go back to Lima with a maximum six points then never mind oxygen - they will be floating higher than a helium balloon.
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;
Why did Uruguay's Gaston Ramirez join Southampton? He was linked with everyone big and as a Saints fan I can't really work out how we managed to get him. Will he be a success in the Premier League?
I suppose it's a tribute to the strength in depth of the Premier League that a much-touted talent is willing to join a newly promoted club - one of the things that makes this such a fascinating move.
A club in Southampton's position have little margin for error with major signings. After paying out big they really need a new acquisition to produce - as soon as possible.
I hope Ramirez will be able to do that, but there is clearly a risk involved. He has a wonderful left foot, but he is not especially quick, and those long legs mean that he lacks speed off the mark. Can he find space to impose himself on frenetic English midfields?
There were some promising signs in the recent World Cup qualifiers. Uruguay did not do well, but in the half hour he played against Colombia and the full 90 against Ecuador Ramirez produced his best international displays in the two years he has been hanging around the squad. There was less of the 'little boy lost' about him. He looked like he felt he belonged.
Against Ecuador, Uruguay ended up dropping him back a few metres in the hope that he could get good service into the box from deep. It was an interesting variation - something that was also tried in the Olympics - but it can leave exposed his lack of defensive aptitude.