All 10 countries in South America go into the qualification process for the 2022 World Cup with hopes of making it all the way through. The marathon format, with everyone playing everyone else home and away, was introduced in 1996, and it has allowed the weak to grow stronger. No one, at least at the start, is merely making up the numbers and every away game is a hazard. It is surely the most competitive qualification campaign on the planet. This time, though, the most competitive aspect has been the battle behind the scenes to ensure that the action gets underway on Thursday.
To the north, the CONCACAF region decided to postpone its kick off until March of next year. The coronavirus pandemic is no less serious in South America, but CONMEBOL are determined to plough ahead.
The difference is explained by the question of formats. CONCACAF have shortened and simplified its qualification process, while CONMEBOL is desperate to avoid going down the same route. The dates in March and September have already been lost. If they give up many more, it becomes impossible to fit in 18 rounds before the 2022 World Cup. The marathon format, as well as its sporting merit, is a vital source of revenue for the national associations and, with the exception of Uruguay, the TV deals have already been signed on the basis of every country having nine home games.
One solution would be to scrap the next Copa America, originally scheduled for this year but since pushed back to June and July 2021, and use the time to catch up on the fixture backlog. This was always considered an "extra" Copa, squeezed into the calendar to take advantage of a switch from odd to even years. It is something of a bureaucratic monster, split up between Argentina and Colombia, nations at opposite ends of a giant continent -- and the last four teams in a 12 team tournament will have to play eight games, one more than they do in a 32-team World Cup.
But again, if common sense points one way, financial interests point the other. The TV deals have been done, and preparations for the tournament are moving ahead. And so, in spite of the risks of the coronavirus, South America's World Cup qualifiers will kick off on Thursday. And they will do so with players who make their living all across the globe.
The big stars, of course, are based in Europe, and the European clubs detest releasing their players for national team duty in South America at the best of times -- which these, emphatically, are not. The European Club Association are far from happy that these matches are going ahead, and FIFPRO, the global players union, also made its concerns known.
"Many players will be travelling in and out of countries with some of the highest incidence of COVID pandemic, with more than 100 cases per 100,000 people," it said in a statement.
"There remain significant risks and legitimate concerns for players and their families."
CONMEBOL's most important ally has been FIFA president Gianni Infantino. He was present at two video conference meetings in mid-September. In between the two, he used his influence to ensure players would not have to undergo quarantine restrictions on their return to Europe. This removed the legal obstacle to the release of players.
A challenge came from an unexpected quarter when Major League Soccer made clear its reluctance to release players -- the squad lists from Ecuador, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay and Venezuela all included names based in the United States.
FIFA made it clear that sanctions would be used against clubs who did not release, and that any player appearing for his club while called up for national team duty would be deemed ineligible, with the club open to heavy disciplinary sanctions.
Some MLS clubs have dug in. D.C. United will not be releasing Edison Flores and Yordy Reyna for Peru, nor Venezuela's Junior Moreno. New York City FC's Alexander Callens (Peru) and Philadelphia Union's Jose Martinez (Venezuela) have also not been released, and Venezuela's China-based striker Salomon Rondon has been blocked by quarantine restrictions.
In general, though, the hard line has worked. But the risks remain -- as has become evident in the three weeks of action since the return of the Copa Libertadores, South America's Champions League.
Flamengo of Brazil spent a week in Ecuador, where they played two matches, and also suffered a mass outbreak of COVID-19, with 20 players plus directors and members of the coaching staff all testing positive. Their conclusion was that protecting the delegation was much more difficult on the road, with airplane journeys and hotel air conditioning, than when they were based in their own training centre.
This has obvious implications for the World Cup qualifiers. There are two rounds coming up, one on Thursday and Friday, and the other the following Tuesday. All 10 South American nations will play once at home and once away. Everyone is on the road at some point, which would appear to heighten the risk.
And there has also been some alarming news about a player who has been involved in the Libertadores. Raniel, a 24-year-old striker with Santos of Brazil, tested positive for the virus at the start of September. After serving his time in quarantine, he was rushed back to action and appeared in all three of his team's Libertadores games, with a flight to Ecuador and another to Paraguay. On Saturday he went down with deep vein thrombosis and will need surgery for a condition surely linked to both his recent medical history and the demands of the fixture list.
This, of course, casts doubts on the extent to which even some fit young athletes can make a quick and complete recovery from the virus. Should players report back to their clubs at the end of next week with some of them having contracted the virus, then it is hard to see how November's dates could be salvaged. South America might live to regret the decision to reject a proposal from Colombia to forget October games and play an extra round the following month.
But the gamble goes on. Squads have met up -- in the case of Ecuador and Venezuela the players are meeting new coaches for the first time. All over the continent, coaches are in a tricky position. None of the teams have been in action since last November. Now there is little time to shake off the jet lag before the players are in action. The coaches have no time to be coaches: With all the logistical problems bringing their players together, they have to be a mixture of selectors and travel agents.