Given the lengthy home and away round-robin system that has been in place since the qualifying phase for the 1998 FIFA World Cup™, there is no need for a draw in the South American Zone. And in the absence of five-time world champions and 2014 hosts Brazil, the only nation to have taken part at every edition of the global finals to date, the region’s other sides will be desperate to stake their claim for one of the direct qualifying berths customarily seized by A Seleção.
As of 7 October 2011, the nine teams will begin a gruelling 16-matchday campaign, whose last fixtures will not be played until over two years later on 15 October 2013. At stake over this period are no fewer than four tickets to Brazil 2014 and one further passage to an intercontinental play-off.
“It’s true – in the absence of Brazil it’s as if there’s an extra spot up for grabs,” Colombia full-back Pablo Armero told FIFA.com. Clearly enthused by Los Cafeteros' improved prospects of sealing a return to football’s top table for the first time since 1998, he added: "Aside from that, the teams are incredibly well-matched. Every country has at least a few players doing well at big clubs."
Armero is quite right, with the list of stars set to take part in South American qualifying going far beyond the usual suspects such as Lionel Messi or Diego Forlan. Indeed, shining for club and country are the likes of Peru’s Jose Paolo Guerrero, Radamel Falcao of Colombia, Paraguay’s Lucas Barrios, Alexis Sanchez of Chile, Venezuela’s Jose Salomon Rondon and Ecuador’s Christian Noboa.
A clear indicator of both the strength in depth and the evenly matched nature of the CONMEBOL region was July's Copa America, where continental heavyweights Argentina, the host nation, and the mighty Brazil both exited at the quarter-final stage at the hands of eventual finalists Uruguay and Paraguay respectively. What is more, by winning the 2011 Copa in addition to reaching the semi-finals of South Africa 2010, La Celeste and their fearsome forward trio of Forlan, Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani underlined their current status as South America’s finest side.
"This is the best possible way to go into the 2014 qualifying race," said Forlan after the Copa success. "We've got a solid team which is getting a better and better grasp on how it needs to play. When tackling the qualifying phase, with so many matches over such a long time period, that solidity will be crucial."
With Brazil missing, Argentina still struggling to gel and Uruguay's own convincing win over Paraguay in the Copa America final, Forlan and Co must fancy their chances of cementing one of the direct qualifying berths. Yet neither they nor fellow big guns such as La Albiceleste and La Albirroja will have it their own way, with traditional minnows Peru and Venezuela both reaching the Copa semi-finals and a vibrant Chile side catching the eye at South Africa 2010.
So, could this end up being the closest-fought qualifying phase since South America adopted the round-robin format? Whatever happens, it is sure to be a rollercoaster ride.