The frustration of failing to secure a single semi-final place at the 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany™ has now subsided and South American football is already plotting its return to the upper echelons of the world game. And as has been the case for the last decade now, the continent's representatives will be making an early start in their quest for tickets to South Africa 2010, with the first qualifiers slated for 13 and 16 October.
The qualification format remains unchanged with ten countries (Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay and Venezuela) playing each other home and away in a league system. The prize for the top four is a direct flight to South Africa 2010, with the fifth-placed team going through to a play-off against one of the CONCACAF teams.
In another change to the format, which will run over the same timeframe as the Germany 2006 qualifiers, the governing body CONMEBOL has decided to schedule nine separate weeks of double-headers, with each side playing two games in those weeks. The idea behind this is to streamline the tournament and to avoid the problems Europe-based players habitually face when seeking release from their club employers.
The history makers
The ten-team league format was first used for the France 1998 qualification tournament, and since then the continent's contenders have enjoyed varying fortunes.
Argentina and Paraguay are the only two nations to have contested and qualified from all three tournaments, while Brazil, who qualified automatically for France 1998 as defending champions, have only taken part in two, qualifying on both occasions. Although Ecuador missed out the first time round, they obviously learnt from that experience, going on to reach both Korea/Japan 2002 and Germany 2006. The flipside of the coin is represented by Colombia, who made the trip to France only to miss out on finals berths in the last two competitions.
The other side with a somewhat chequered qualification history is Uruguay. Accustomed to making life difficult for themselves, the Celeste came home fifth in both 2001 and 2005 and found Oceania winners Australia blocking their path on both occasions. The Uruguayans proved too tough for the Antipodeans first time out, but suffered an agonising penalty shootout defeat Down Under in 2005. There will be no exhausting long-haul flights facing the fifth-placed team in a couple of years, however, with one of the CONCACAF representatives now providing the play-off opposition.
Fixtures for rounds 1 and 2 in South American qualifying: