The wait is almost over. Across South America, the continent's national teams are immersed in last-minute preparations, hoping to sprint from the blocks in the race for a berth at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™.
While the qualifiers represent a step into the unknown for several of the region's current national coaches, others have already run the gauntlet and know just what to expect. To get an insider's perspective on what is in store, FIFA.com spoke to the four men who coached the region's representatives at Germany 2006. What can we expect to see over the next two-and-a-half years? Who are the main contenders and the potential surprise packages? Read on for the experts' views.
Jose Pekerman (Argentina coach at Germany 2006)
I think we're going to see the most evenly balanced and hard-fought qualifying phase since the round-robin format was introduced. The gap between the sides has narrowed considerably and Uruguay, Chile and Colombia are all going to be very strong. Paraguay have already cemented their status as one of the region's top four sides with a young, new-look squad, while we're expecting Venezuela to continue to progress. Ecuador? We'll have to see if they can keep their run going. I'd single out Bolivia as one to watch; they've now realised that if they plan on reaching the World Cup they must win all their home games. If they can do that, they'll be very tough rivals and will be in with a shout (of qualifying).
Carlos Parreira (Brazil coach at Germany 2006)
South American qualifying is a very difficult competition, given that it goes on for two-and-a-half years and it's easy to lose your focus. Most of the players travel from Europe shortly before matches and that makes the job more difficult. This year will be no different: the qualifiers will be tough and evenly matched. Not for nothing did Brazil only seal qualification for the 1994 and 2002 tournaments in their final match. I think that those teams who make the most of home advantage will have the edge. The favourites? Argentina and Brazil, who are always strong and have managed to bed in a younger group of players in a short space of time. Uruguay, Colombia and Ecuador also have a good chance of making it through.
Luis Suarez (Ecuador coach at Germany 2006):
The qualifying phase is sure to be very evenly matched, thanks to the progress made by a number of teams who previously didn't harbour realistic hopes (of making it through). This will be good for the public at large. Bolivia, for example, have worked very hard and will be a force at home. Venezuela showed how far they've come at the Copa America and have a good midfield and very effective strikers. Uruguay, for their part, have an excellent coaching team in place. That, combined with their traditional fighting spirit, makes them fearsome opponents. I think that Argentina and Brazil are the only standout sides; after those two it will be very tight. I doubt that all four teams will qualify with games to spare, I expect it to go right to the wire.
Anibal Ruiz (Paraguay coach at Germany 2006)
I'm going to have to side with my colleagues and highlight just how well-balanced this qualifying phase looks, with only Brazil and Argentina standing head and shoulders above the rest. The appointment of Marcelo Bielsa will strengthen Chile. Not only is he an extremely hard worker and experienced in these situations, but he will ease the pressure on his players. Venezuela and Ecuador have kept faith in their coaches, which is a bonus, although they could suffer now they've so many players playing abroad. Oscar Tabarez and Jose Del Solar will both do a good job with Uruguay and Peru respectively, while Bolivia showed at the Copa America that they're improving. That said, I'm putting my faith in Paraguay. In Gerardo Martino they have an excellent coach, plus they have and several players in the ideal age range for a competition of this nature. They won't give anybody an easy game and I'm certain they'll be in contention near the top of the table.