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 By Tim Vickery

48-team World Cup could negatively affect South American qualifying

On the website of CONMEBOL, the South American Confederation, there is an article entitled: "From 13 teams in Uruguay 1930 to 48 in the 2026 World Cup."

It is a neat way of reminding everyone of one of the great trump cards of the South American game: its fabulous tradition. This is the continent where the World Cup began and which has won nine versions of the tournament, divided between Brazil (five wins) and Uruguay and Argentina (two apiece).

The big three has provided Barcelona with the "MSN" forward line of Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar, who hail from Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil respectively. The trio symbolise the other strong card that South America can play, both in the past and present: It produces so many of the world's great individual players.

But over the last two decades, there has been an extra reason for South American national team football to feel good about itself and that is the performances of the continent's less traditional teams.

Ecuador, for example, had never qualified for the World Cup until 2002. Four years later, on European soil, they thrashed Poland to reach the second round, where they gave England a tough game.

At South Africa 2010, Paraguay enjoyed the best World Cup in their history, reaching the quarter finals, where they gave eventual winners Spain perhaps their toughest battle in that run of three consecutive triumphant tournaments.

And two years ago, Colombia had the best World Cup in their history, also making their quarterfinal debut. The last two World Cups have been the best ever for Chile, with the exception of 1962 when they were at home and reached the last four.

There is a simple explanation for this rise in standards. Until 1996 all national team football in South America was played on a tournament-type calendar, in quick bursts. In World Cup qualification, the 10 teams were split into different groups and the games were played over the course of a couple of months. There could be huge gaps between competitive matches and, therefore, there was little conception of a permanent national team.

Marquinhos and Lionel Messi in action during a match between Argentina and Brazil as part of FIFA 2018 World Cup qualifier.
The World Cup qualification format for Argentina, Brazil and the other South American nations could be altered.

That all changed 21 years ago with the adoption of the current marathon format of qualification, in which all the teams are in one group, playing each other home and away over the course of two years.

The adjustment meant that, at last, the South Americans had the kind of calendar that European national teams take for granted: Regular competitive games with guaranteed income, giving the chance to keep a side together and to appoint quality coaches.

It was a huge date in the development of national team football in the continent, in its way as significant as the 1916 birth of Copa America. If that quickly brought about a massive rise in standards for the likes of Uruguay, Argentina and Brazil, then the marathon World Cup qualification format did likewise for other South American nations.

The result has been that the South American qualifiers have become the best around. Fiercely competitive, with no such thing as an easy game, they have clearly prepared sides to do themselves justice at the World Cup itself. In the last two tournaments, only one South American side -- Ecuador in 2014 -- has failed to qualify from the group stage.

Now, though, their continued excellence could be a casualty of the decision to increase the size of the World Cup from 32 to 48 teams.

As it stands, the 10 South American nations are competing for four-and-a-half places in Russia 2018; the top four in the table qualify automatically, while the side finishing fifth will go into a playoff against the best team in Oceania. After 12 of 18 rounds, it is currently so tight that there is no guarantee Argentina, currently fifth, will make the cut.

But the likely proposal is for South America to receive two extra places in 2026. Ten teams, then, would be fighting for six-and-a-half places, thus removing the competitive edge from proceedings. At present, making it through is a testament of excellence. Under the new proposals, failing to qualify would be gross incompetence.

An idea has been floated to merge the qualification campaigns of CONMEBOL and CONCACAF, but it is difficult to see why the South Americans should go along with a proposal that disregards their tradition and forces them to travel to a different hemisphere.

Any change inevitably brings winners and losers. There seems little doubt, though, that the best qualification format on the planet will lose out from the expansion of the World Cup to 48 teams.

Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.


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