Regarded by some of its participants as the toughest and most evenly matched of all the qualifying competitions, the South American Zone lived up to all expectations as five contenders battled their way through to the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™.

Their journey to Brazil was lit up by some stellar individual performances and memorable matches, though the tournament will also remain in the memory for other reasons.

While Argentina’s success was largely expected, Colombia’s return to the world finals was more of a surprise, as was Uruguay’s fourth straight play-off appearance and Paraguay’s elimination. Among the tournament’s other highlights were the revival of Chile’s golden generation, while Ecuador’s brave response to the untimely death of their leading striker Cristian Benitez was also worthy of note.

FIFA.com looks at the key moments, statistics and personalities from the CONMEBOL preliminaries.

The qualifiers (in alphabetical order)
Argentina
Chile
Colombia
Ecuador
Uruguay

Five memorable moments
15 November 2011
Argentina were under pressure as they headed into Matchday 4, having lost to Venezuela for the first time ever and drawn with Bolivia in Buenos Aires. Goals from Lionel Messi and Sergio Aguero helped them secure a vital 2-1 win away to Colombia, however, after which they never looked back. That hard-fought victory marked the start of a 14-match unbeaten run that helped La Albiceleste seal their place in Brazil with two games to spare.

The game was also a turning point for Colombia, marking as it did the end of Leonel Alvarez’s reign, with Jose Pekerman coming in to replace him. The Argentinian immediately set about strengthening the Cafetero defence and attack, putting them firmly on course for the world finals.

26 March 2013
Matchday 12 was notable for two very different reasons. Firstly, Chile beat Uruguay 2-0 at home courtesy of goals from Esteban Paredes and Eduardo Vargas, giving Argentinian coach Jorge Sampaoli his first win as Roja boss. The Chileans would remain unbeaten for the rest of the qualifiers, sealing their ticket to the finals with five wins and a draw in their last six outings.

Secondly, the ill-fated Cristian Benitez scored what would be his last international goal in Ecuador’s 4-1 victory over Paraguay in Quito. Chucho, the undisputed leader of El Tricolor, died in Qatar four months later as a result of a heart problem.

11 June 2013
Having gone six games without a win, Uruguay were right up against it when they travelled to Venezuela, one of their direct rivals in the battle for the play-off place. La Celeste went into the game in seventh place and defeat would have left them on the brink of elimination. A solitary Edinson Cavani goal nevertheless gave them a priceless 1-0 win and marked the start of a late recovery. Though not quite enough to give them a direct ticket to Brazil, their revival did secure them yet another play-off appearance.

10 September 2013
Not only did Matchday 16 end with Argentina becoming the first side to qualify from the competition, it also brought confirmation of Paraguay’s elimination. Runners-up at the 2011 Copa America, La Albirroja are surprise absentees from Brazil, having reached the last four World Cups.

11 October 2013
Colombia and Chile shared six goals in quite probably the best game in the whole competition in Barranquilla, with the hosts coming from 3-0 down in the second half to seal qualification for their first world finals since France 1998. La Roja would have qualified had they held on to their lead, though they made sure they would be joining the Colombians by winning their final game four days later.

Matchday 17 also featured what was effectively a play-off for the final direct qualification slot between Ecuador and Uruguay in Quito. The home side prevailed 1-0, the one and only victory they secured following Benitez’s death. The all-important goal was scored by Jefferson Montero, one of the men entrusted with the weighty task of filling Chucho’s shoes.

The key players
The Brazil 2014 preliminaries saw Lionel Messi, Radamel Falcao and Alexis Sanchez consolidate their status as the leaders of the pack for Argentina, Colombia and Chile respectively, while Luis Suarez also emerged as Uruguay’s dominant figure. The quartet stood tall at vital times for their sides, proving every bit as important to their national causes on the pitch as they are off it.

Argentina were also indebted to the contributions of Sergio Aguero and Gonzalo Higuain, while Colombia have much to thank attacking midfielder James Rodriguez and centre-forward Teofilo Gutierrez also. The appearance of Jefferson Montero proved a breath of fresh air for Ecuador, particularly in the absence of the late lamented Benitez. Elsewhere, Chile’s young striker Eduardo Vargas and Uruguayan front man Cristian Stuani did enough to suggest they have some very productive years ahead of them.

The stats
14
- The number of matchdays, out of a total of 18, on which Argentina led the regional qualifying tournament, the last 12 of them consecutively. La Albiceleste were the only side in the competition to occupy one of the four direct qualifying places throughout.

91.6 - The percentage number of points Ecuador won at home, the highest in the South American qualifiers. The Ecuadorians won seven of their eight games in Quito and drew the other, against table-topping Argentina. In doing so they scored 15 goals and conceded three. The 22 points they scored at home accounted for 88 per cent of their final points tally.

4 - The number of consecutive intercontinental play-offs that Uruguay have now been through. They have come out on top on three occasions, beating Australia in 2001, Costa Rica in 2009 and Jordan in 2013, their only failure coming against the Australians in 2005.

What they said
“By the end of the competition the team had found a style that gave them the edge over every side they faced, and that filled the players with obvious confidence. Thanks to that style we didn’t feel inferior to anyone, and it helped us fight in every game as if it were the last,” Chile coach Jorge Sampaoli.

“Maybe we enjoy inflicting pain on ourselves because this is the fourth time we’ve had to go through the play-offs. We’ve got some great players, but the South American qualifiers are a real hard slog, probably the toughest there is,” Uruguay midfielder Cristian Rodriguez.

“Colombia have never lost sight of the objective in hand. The qualifiers saw plenty of planning, hard work and a few ups and downs, but we got the reward we deserved because we knew how to handle the situation,” Colombia coach Jose Pekerman.

Leading goalscorers
11: Luis Suarez (URU)
10: Lionel Messi (ARG)
9: Gonzalo Higuain (ARG)