[dropcap]D[/dropcap]espite last summer’s World Cup still being fresh in the memory of most, qualification for the next tournament in Russia in 2018 has began in some parts of the globe.
In South America, the first round of games to gauge which teams will participate in the competition took place over the weekend, with a number of shock results catching the headlines.
Both Argentina and Brazil, the continent’s biggest countries and footballing powerhouses, were beaten 2-0 and as such leave themselves with considerably less room for error in the qualifying campaign.
In truth, as the summer’s Copa America competition showed, these footballing superpowers are not as dominant over their neighbouring countries as in days past, with the qualifying process set to be tightly contested.
Argentina have been the nearlymen of the global game in recent years, with defeat in the World Cup and Copa America finals to Germany and Chile respectively.
The weight of expectation attached to La Albiceleste has been heightened due to the presence of four-time Ballon d’Or winner Lionel Messi and the accusation that the Barcelona superstar has not replicated his club exploits in the colours of his nation.
Despite the criticism that the 28-year-old has had to live with from a section of his compatriots, Messi’s importance to Tata Martino’s side was clear in the disappointing 2-0 defeat to Ecuador recently.
With the Barcelona star not available, Argentina lacked penetration in the final third, with injury to Sergio Agüero compounding the side’s issues.
The talent available in the Argentine squad is nothing short of outstanding, but there is a feeling that the national side has not found cohesion or a system to bring the best out of their players over the last decade.
Brazilian football meanwhile is in a noteworthy low ebb, with Dunga’s men not putting up much of a fight in their 2-0 defeat to Chile.
After high hopes of becoming world champions on home soil last summer, the 7-1 hammering at the hands of the Germans at the semi-final stage sent shockwaves through Brazil that are still reverberating now.
The sheer disappointment of World Cup elimination was followed by a very underwhelming Copa America campaign where the Seleção simply did not get going.
The eye-catching, uncontainable attacking football of past Brazilian teams has been replaced by uncharacteristic low confidence and a lack of star quality.
The over-reliance on golden boy Neymar was painstakingly apparent at the World Cup, but some 15 months later there remain a lack of players ready to stand up and be counted in the attacking third.
While Brazil and Argentina rely on their individual talismen, other South American nations such as Ecuador, Chile, Uruguay and Colombia are showing more of a collective spirit.
The section has four automatic qualification berths available, with a fifth team odds-on to be in Russia also but having to go through the slight inconvenience of a play-off.
In days past Brazil or Argentina could afford a slow start or a slip-up in qualifying, with the required quality to make amends.
However, this time round the South American qualifying process looks set to be much more tightly contested, with potential scope for one of the heavyweights even missing out if they do not improve.
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