Neymar, Lionel Messi and Luis Suárez all missing from South American World Cup qualifiers
7 October ~ Tomorrow evening sees South America begin its marathon qualification campaign for the 2018 World Cup. All ten countries will play each other home and away over the next two years, in what is almost certainly the most competitive qualification pool in world football. The headline tie in tomorrow’s opening round of fixtures takes place in Santiago, where Chile face Brazil.
The home side come into the game off the back of their historic Copa América triumph in July and still with their much feted coach, Jorge Sampaoli, in the dugout (or, more accurately, pacing up and down in front of it). The Chileans bore the weight of expectation that came with hosting the Copa and go into this qualification phase with the unusual sensation of being a prized scalp.
Brazil, meanwhile, experienced another troubling tournament, losing to Colombia in the group stage, before exiting on penalties to Paraguay. Neymar was sent off in the tetchy defeat to the Colombians and will be absent from these first two qualifiers, forcing coach Dunga to seek new solutions. “A team does not win with just one player. It takes the collective,” he said when announcing his squad. “Who is stronger? The pack or a lone wolf? One does not live without the other. When we have a strong group, things will happen naturally. Nobody wins alone.”
With or without Neymar, this is not a strong moment for Brazilian football, a point illustrated by the fact that when Liverpool attacker Roberto Firmino picked up an injury that ruled him out of these first two qualification matches, his replacement was Ricardo Oliveira of Santos, a 35-year-old who has not appeared at international level for eight years. The public feeling is therefore one of apprehension. When the sports daily Lance! ran an poll asking what the Chile game represents, more than half the respondents said it was an opportunity to avoid another national embarrassment.
Missing stars is a theme across this first set of qualifiers. Luis Suárez and Edinson Cavani are both suspended for Uruguay, while James Rodríguez and Charles "The Prince" Aránguiz are absent through injury for Colombia and Chile respectively. In Argentina too, Gerardo Martino is a coach drafting a Plan B in the absence of his star man Lionel Messi, who is expected to miss all four of Argentina’s qualifiers this year with a knee injury, including Thursday’s opener at home to Ecuador.
"If we lose, they will say that we missed Messi,” Martino said. “And if we win his absence will be minimised. Both things will be bad.” Messi’s absence may open the door for Carlos Tevez (the "player of the people”, according to Diego Maradona) who has seen his popularity rise even higher since returning home with Boca Juniors. However, his modest haul of 13 goals in 74 international appearances suggests Martino may also want to prepare a Plan C. Marcus Haydon