CONMEBOL qualifying table in limbo awaiting verdict on Bolivia CAS appeal
For all of the Argentina national team's current problems it is highly likely that, come the end of South American World Cup qualifiers, the recent 1-0 win over Chile will be seen as the decisive result that got the team over the line and on the plane to Russia. True, it was a dreadful performance and an undeserved win, as well as being the match in which Lionel Messi picked up a four-game ban.
But imagine if Chile had won the game. They would be second in the table, rather than their current position of fourth. And Argentina would not be in the fifth-place playoff slot. They would be sixth, outside the qualification places and four points adrift of Chile. La Albiceleste would have four matches left to play themselves back into contention and, as it stands, Messi would miss three of them.
So if Argentina's situation now is uncomfortable, it would have been desperate had they been beaten by Chile. There is, though, just a chance that it might look a little more comfortable in the near future.
Back in September, Chile were surprisingly held to a goalless draw at home by Bolivia. But it later transpired that Bolivia had fielded an ineligible player. Veteran Paraguay-born defender Nelson Cabrera had made a late appearance as a substitute. He fulfilled Bolivian requirements for nationalisation, having lived in the country for three years. FIFA, though, requires a five-year period of residence. And so Bolivia were stripped of the points they won in the two games where Cabrera was on the field -- he was also a late substitute in the 2-0 win over Peru. Instead, both games were awarded to the opposition by a 3-0 margin.
Without those extra points, Peru's remote hopes of making a return to the World Cup would be nonexistent. Chile would be down in fifth position, trading places with Argentina. And this will be the real position if Bolivia's appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) is successful.
The Bolivian case is based on a clause in the regulations of South American World Cup qualifiers that gives opponents a time limit of 24 hours to register a complaint about ineligible players. The rationale is clear. All the rounds are staged as double headers, with the two matches some five days apart. A swift resolution is needed. This led Bolivia to believe they were in the clear when the news about Cabrera broke -- it caught them by surprise. He had played in last year's Copa America Centenario without any problems. Bolivia had not expected a denunciation and when it came they thought they had nothing to fear -- the 24-hour time period had come and gone.
"I think the FIFA verdict casts doubt on tournaments," argued Bolivia's FA president Marcos Peredo in an interview with the Argentine press. "If Bolivia made a mistake, then Chile and Peru had time to present their complaint, as stipulated in the regulations. It is a question of a statute of limitations. No complaints can be made when the time limit expires. So when FIFA acts more than two months after the fact, it generates a climate of uncertainty.
"Imagine if a complaint is made when the World Cup has already started. Suddenly there's one set of players getting a plane out of Russia and another set coming in! CAS should reach a verdict as soon as possible, at least before the next set of qualifiers [at the end of August] because the decision will have an effect on a number of countries."
As far as Bolivia are concerned, the recuperation of their four points would be irrelevant in terms of their World Cup chances. They are not going to Russia and are already thinking of 2022. But all of the countries in the dogfight -- from Colombia in second all the way down to Paraguay in eighth -- will be keeping an eye on what happens in Lausanne, Switzerland, where the CAS is based.
A town in Switzerland has become important in the South American battle to decide who goes to the World Cup.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.