It is only friendlies for South America's national teams over the next few days, but they would be well advised to have an extra spring in their step. The traditional post-World Cup silly season, when only friendlies are played still exists, but it is shorter than ever. The 2026 qualification campaign kicks off in September, leaving a nine-month gap between the end of one World Cup cycle and the start of another.
Usually the gap has ranged from 14 months to a mammoth 21 -- plenty of time to appoint new coaches and prepare a team for the challenges ahead. This time, though, everything is happening quicker. In part this is a roll-on effect of the 2022 World Cup being played the end of the year, but that is only part of the story. It is also the consequence of a battle behind the scenes.
Ever since the 1996 World Cup campaign, South America has followed the "one big group" format, with the 10 nations playing each other home and away on a prolonged league basis. Some thought that the time had come for a change.
- Stream on ESPN+: LaLiga, Bundesliga, more (U.S.)
Now the World Cup has been expanded to include 48 nations, was there really such a need for an extended qualification process? After all, the continent now has six automatic places, plus an extra one available through a playoff. Was it really necessary to play 80 games in order to eliminate just three teams?
That seems to be the way that Brazil looked on the issue, and so too, it appears, did CONMEBOL president Alejandro Dominguez. He has been working hard to build bridges with his European counterparts and more available FIFA dates meant fresh opportunities to stage matches between UEFA and CONMEBOL, something that the calendar in recent years has rendered all but impossible.
But South America's smaller nations did not agree. First, the current marathon format of qualification has been very good for them. For the first time ever, it has given them the type of calendar that European national teams take for granted, with regular competitive games. The improvement has been striking. Before the league system was introduced, Ecuador had never made it to a World Cup. They have now been to four and are shaping up as one of the teams to watch in the next few years. And it is not just them. Paraguay enjoyed their best ever World Cup in 2010, as did Colombia in 2014, and both these tournaments are also the best in Chile's history, with the exception of 1962, which they hosted.
There is also a pressing financial incentive. The smaller nations are yet to be convinced that the brave new world of Dominguez's reign will include glamorous fixtures for them. And they are well aware that the current format guarantees them nine home games, with revenue from the sale of TV rights. Some of them, in fact, had already sold the TV rights to their 2026 qualifiers. And so their position prevailed, and, as is so often the case in sports politics, once it was clear which side would win, the vote in favour was unanimous.
Starting the qualifiers in September ended up suiting both sides. It means that TV money will be rolling in from the games in September, October and November. And it also leaves space further down the line for Dominguez to work his diplomacy. For example, the qualifiers in 2024 are limited to the second half of the year. The FIFA dates in March are free, and Dominguez trusts that he can work an agreement then for the South Americans to face European opposition.
And so the CONMEBOL sides will take the field this week aware that there are less than six months until the 2026 qualifiers, and that the only preparation they have will be now and in the FIFA dates in June.
This explains why teams have been in a hurry to sort out their coaches. At present only Brazil and Uruguay have caretaker bosses, and they will surely have a name in place by June. Argentina's World Cup winning coach Lionel Scaloni is the only remnant from the group of managers who set out on the road to Qatar. Paraguay's Guillermo Barros Schelotto and Chile's Eduardo Berizzo stepped in during the Qatar qualifiers, with Peru appointing Juan Reynoso and Colombia going with Nestor Lorenzo soon afterwards. Bolivia have since appointed Gustavo Costas, yet another Argentine. There are six in all, including Venezuela's boss, though they suddenly sacked the veteran Jose Pekerman and replaced him with Fernando Batista, who took Argentina to the Tokyo Olympics.
For a while -- until and unless Brazil made a historic choice -- there is only one European. Ecuador have just brought in Felix Sanchez from Spain, whose fine body of work with the Qatar national team ended in something of a disappointment in their home World Cup.
There is an interesting continuity here. More than half of the Ecuador squad came through the ranks with the extraordinary Independiente del Valle club, which specialises in youth development. They have long had a link with Qatar's Aspire Academy and have taken Spanish coaches from the project before. Sanchez, then, should be treading in somewhat familiar territory. He inherits a highly interesting group of players, but he will want to hit the ground running. Ecuador were punished for fielding a player with dubious paperwork in the last set of qualifiers, and start the road to 2026 on a handicap. They have minus three points. Sanchez will want to use these next few days (two games against Australia) and the FIFA dates in June to whip his side into shape and make good on their deficit.