Let's first begin by talking about the halfway point.
Any marathon runner or mountain climber will tell you that the halfway point is always the most arduous part of any journey because it's the moment when you are essentially presented with two choices.
You either see it as a motivational tool -- a sign that tells you, "you're almost there! Keep going!" -- or it's a message of retreat, telling you that no matter what, you're just not going to make it. The obstacle, sadly, is just too difficult to overcome. Whichever door you choose will determine your fate, and when you're done and finished with the journey, you can reflect on the halfway point as the reason for why you failed or succeeded.
The halfway point, therefore, paints the entire picture.
With this in mind, let's turn our attention to these CONMEBOL World Cup qualifiers -- the most grueling of international fixtures -- because by the time these September matches are done, they will enter the halfway point. The aforementioned doors are coming up.
So, as we get ready for the debut of a three-match window amidst the backdrop of uncertainty due to covid and travel restrictions, South Americans nations know that these games are vital in order to qualify for the World Cup in Qatar.
CONMEBOL World Cup qualifiers: Standings
- Brazil (6-0-0, 18 PTS)
- Argentina (3-3-0, 12 PTS)
- Ecuador (3-0-3, 9 PTS)
- Uruguay (2-2-2, 8 PTS)
- Colombia (2-2-2, 8 PTS)
- Paraguay (1-4-1, 7 PTS)
- Chile (1-3-2, 6 PTS)
- Bolivia (1-2-3, 5 PTS)
- Venezuela (1-1-4, 4 PTS)
- Peru (1-1-4, 4 PTS)
The table could not be tighter. Only eight points separate second-place Argentina and 10th-place Peru. Brazil lead the group with 18 points and are still perfect, but there are still 36 available. Nobody looks omnipotent, especially after Copa América. The issues with availability from European-based players are a major talking point, giving perhaps an advantage to certain nations but time will tell if they take advantage. There's no doubt that's a major talking point as Premier League clubs and those from La Liga, Ligue 1 and Serie A have made significant steps to not allow or at the very least limit participation in this window. FIFA, as expected, fought this and the Court of Arbitration stood with them.
At this point, there has been more of an "agreement" between federations and respective clubs, as the three-match fixture list massively impacts the domestic schedule. Edinson Cavani and Luis Suárez will not take part for Uruguay. Neither will most Brazilians from the Premier League. Aston Villa, for example, have allowed Emiliano Martínez and Emiliano Buendía to join Argentina on the condition they return right after the second game against Brazil. But Lionel Scaloni might have other thoughts.
"We gave the list for the three matches and there's no doubt about it. The players are here for the three matches," Scaloni told reporters ahead of their first match of this window against Venezuela.
This issue won't go away anytime soon, but it's important to remember that there are two sides of this coin and perspective from both what a club needs and requires due to contractual obligations and what a player's responsibilities are with a national team. All of it needs to be taken into account.
Oh, and it wouldn't be South America without a manager resignation. We'll get to that in a moment.
All in all, the drama of South American World Cup qualifiers is here. It's probably set to give us even more storylines and most importantly, by the time we conclude this window, the table could look very different.
We must begin with Argentina, coming in full of confidence and bravado after winning this summer's Copa América . Their main star Lionel Messi has a new club, is almost back to full fitness and most importantly, he's happy. The proverbial monkey is off his back now that he finally has a major trophy with the national team, so the focus shifts to helping Scaloni and this very talented squad climb up the table.
But when you're the king, the rest will aim to try and dethrone you, and Scaloni knows it. "Now a new challenge starts. Every national team wants to beat the champion," said the manager in Wednesday's press conference. "We have to take points and have a good qualifying campaign."
A few absences, however, as Christian Romero and Leandro Paredes are unavailable in the first game against Venezuela, while others such as Nicolás Otamendi, Giovani Lo Celso, Rodrigo De Paul, Gonzalo Montiel, Nicolás Tagliafico and Lautaro Martínez are one card away from missing out the next game. They don't want that as the next one is a repeat of this summer's Copa América final, the Superclásico against Brazil in São Paulo.
As mentioned, Venezuela's manager José Peseiro resigned last month due to lack of payments, meaning Leonardo González -- with a lot of domestic experience -- comes in as interim manager. He becomes their third head coach in this qualifying cycle. La Vinotinto will have to do everything they can if they are to qualify for the World Cup (they remain the only team in the continent not to do so), but the table is not awful for them. Things are tight and anything at this point is doable.
Josef Martínez and the very talented Yeferson Soteldo should carry the line up front, with Tomás Rincón in the middle. They have some absences in Yangel Herrera, Yordan Osorio, Fernando Aristeguieta and Darwin Machís.
As for Brazil, this is a team led by the identifiable coaching of Tite. Losing the Copa América final in home soil will serve as fuel more so than anything else, so expect a full-on attack against Chile. The Seleção are unbeaten in the last 23 qualifiers and despite a recent resurgence from La Roja (mainly thanks to Martín Lasarte) it might be difficult to overcome an angry Brazilian side. It won't be as straightforward, however, because as mentioned earlier, nine members who are based in England did not come. Alisson, Fabinho, Roberto Firmino, Ederson, Gabriel Jesus, Thiago Silva, Fred, Richarlison and Raphinha are not part of the squad. Feel especially sorry for the latter, as it was supposed to be the debut for the Leeds United playmaker for his country. Make no mistake about it, though, this is Brazil and the talent they have is plentiful. Hulk, who is playing well for Atlético Mineiro, returns to the setup for the first time since 2016, while Dani Alves is back in the fold after winning a gold medal in the Tokyo Olympics. Gabriel "Gabigol" Barbosa has scored 22 goals in 24 matches so his presence will compliment the star of the team, Neymar Jr.
For Chile, it will be a shame not to see Blackburn Rovers striker Ben Brereton Diaz, who has become quite the cult hero. His presence will be missed, as well as Alexis Sanchez, who is still out. Eduardo Vargas will be a very important player for La Roja. If there's anything that Chile teaches South America is that with Arturo Vidal in the squad, anything is possible. Should be a great match.
Colombia under Reinaldo Rueda will have to first deal with the altitude of La Paz as they face Bolivia, and what's more without Yerry Mina or Luis Muriel. Davinson Sánchez could also leave early for Tottenham before Los Cafeteros face Chile, so the defensive unit will be one to pay attention to. There are eight domestic players taking part as well, plus the nation's all-time scorer Radamel Falcao, who joins from his new team Rayo Vallecano. The one to watch is clearly Luis Díaz, as we still remember the ridiculous goal he scored against Peru in the third-place game at Copa América. He is an incredible talent and one who's ready to take a larger role for the national team, especially without James Rodríguez.
Ecuador and Paraguay, two teams who have yet to show their true identity, face each other and something has to give here as La Tri don't lose to this opponent at home, but La Albirroja -- a consistent though not exciting side -- have not lost away in their last five qualifiers. They just have to turn draws into victories. Whoever wins could see a whole turnaround for the rest of the campaign. Ecuador are clearly in a better position (third place with nine points) but their fans know how quickly things can turn against them, especially after what happened in the previous qualifying cycle. This is a very, very talented unit, all it takes is consistency.
Peru meanwhile -- who have multiple identities -- have a very good chance against Uruguay who will be without Cavani (COVID restrictions) and Suárez (knee). Experienced defender Sebastián Coates is also out due to injury. But this team is more than just these three players and El Maestro Óscar Tabárez will surely want to remedy a disappointing Copa América when they lost to Colombia in penalties in the quarterfinal stage. Their record against Peru is a positive one, having lost only one of their last nine meetings.
For Peru, who are bottom, the exciting news is that both Paolo Guerrero and Gianluca Lapadula are in the squad. A chance of seeing them both play together is a salivating proposition for Peruvians. Well have to wait for this one, however, as Lapadula is suspended for the first game, but if there is a time for Raúl Ruidíaz to finally make a mark for the national team, it's now. No Peruvian comes in better form. It's vital for the Seattle Sounders star -- who leads MLS with 14 goals -- to make any kind of impact. Watch out for Sergio Peña too, who will feature in the Champions League this season with his new team Malmö FF.
All in all, South American nations know that September marks a pivotal moment. It's time for each team to finally showcase their worth, and as the halfway mark approaches, no one wants to play catch up.
CONMEBOL World Cup qualifiers: Schedule, how to watch
Thursday, Sept. 2 (Matchday 9)
Bolivia vs. Colombia, 4 p.m. ET, fuboTV (Try now)
Ecuador vs. Paraguay, 5 p.m. ET, fuboTV (Try now)
Venezuela vs. Argentina, 8 p.m. ET, fuboTV (Try now)
Peru vs. Uruguay, 9 p.m. ET, fuboTV (Try now)
Chile vs. Brazil, 9 p.m. ET, fuboTV (Try now)
Sunday, Sept. 5 (Matchday 6 -- rescheduled games)
Brazil vs. Argentina, 3 p.m. ET, fuboTV (Try now)
Ecuador vs. Chile, 5 p.m. ET, fuboTV (Try now)
Uruguay vs. Bolivia, 6 p.m. ET, fuboTV (Try now)
Paraguay vs. Colombia, 6 p.m. ET, fuboTV (Try now)
Peru vs. Venezuela, 9 p.m. ET, fuboTV (Try now)
Thursday, Sept. 9 (Matchday 10)
Uruguay vs. Ecuador, 6:30 p.m. ET, fuboTV (Try now)
Paraguay vs. Venezuela, 6:30 p.m. ET, fuboTV (Try now)
Colombia vs. Chile, 7 p.m. ET, fuboTV (Try now)
Argentina vs. Bolivia, 7:30 p.m. ET, fuboTV (Try now)
Brazil vs. Peru, 8:30 p.m. ET, fuboTV (Try now)