The Nations League is giving European national team football a welcome shot of competitive action. A similar thing happened to South America in 1996, when the current marathon format of World Cup qualification was introduced.
Until that point, the continent’s 10 teams were split into groups. The process was a quick one, and there were times when the teams — especially those who failed to make the cut — would have massive gaps between competitive fixtures.
From 1996, all that came to an end. Instead there were 18 tough rounds of matches, with no European-style minnows merely making up the numbers. With a set calendar and guaranteed income, countries could employ good coaches, and keep a side together.
The benefits are clear; Uruguay have returned to the game’s top table — something that up until 1996 had been considered impossible. Ecuador qualified for the World Cup for the first time in 2002, and reached the second round four years later. Paraguay made their quarterfinals debut in 2010, as did Colombia in 2014 — the two tournaments which were the best in Chile’s history, with the exception of 1962, which they hosted.
Venezuela, the only South American nation never to have made it to a World Cup, are showing that they will be contenders for a place in Qatar 2022. They are feeding through graduates from the team that reached the final of last year’s Under-20 World Cup, and Friday’s 1-1 draw away to Japan was a pleasing sign of maturity — a month earlier, Uruguay were beaten by the same opponents.
The best result of the Thursday/Friday round of games, however, belonged to Ecuador, who travelled to Lima and gave Peru a shock by winning 2-0. This was more than coach Hernan Dario Gomez expected at this stage, but it was the first time he has been able to count on Manchester United Luis Antonio Valencia, who opened the scoring soon after half-time. The other goal was scored by the man of the match, former Premier League striker Enner Valencia.
Gomez should be pleased with how well his side defended — Peru coach Ricardo Gareca commented afterwards that of all the games his side have played recently, this was the one in which they found it hardest to create chances. And once Ecuador had drawn the Peruvian sting, they took them apart on the counter-attack.
The next set of World Cup qualifiers are under a year away — and the signs are that they could be the most competitive ever. Last time Argentina found themselves sinking in quicksand and without some heroics from Lionel Messi they would almost certainly not have made it to Russia. Messi’s international future is unclear; he has not been seen in an Argentina shirt since the World Cup. So how have they been getting on without him?
The answer is that caretaker boss, former West Ham right-back Lionel Scaloni, is not doing badly. His team suffered a last-minute defeat to Brazil last month, and drew with Colombia. But they have won their other three matches, including Friday’s 2-0 triumph over Mexico.
The goal conceded against Brazil was the only one they have let in under Scaloni — a sign of a basic competence which was rarely present under Jorge Sampaoli, his highly rated predecessor whose reign proved so chaotic.
Scaloni’s early achievements are all the more impressive given the lack of time to work with his players and the extent of team rebuilding he is carrying out. A total of 15 debuts have been handed out in the course of these five matches, one of the latest being Tottenham centre-back Juan Foyth’s classy display on Friday. One of the first, Renzo Saravia, has been especially impressive at right-back, and promises to be a solution to a long term problem for the side.
Scaloni has also been able to vary his formation, switching from a back four to a three. And with Leandro Paredes dictating play from midfield, and Giovani Lo Celso linking well with the strikers, there has been a pleasing fluency to the team’s play.
Things have been going so well that a lobby is starting to build for Scaloni to be given the job on a permanent basis. Paulo Dybala was arguing in favour of this following Friday’s game. Originally Scaloni was thought of as nothing more than a cheap stop-gap, buying the Argentine FA some time until they landed a high profile, experienced name. That still may be the plan, but there is no doubt that Scaloni’s position looks stronger than it did a few months ago.
Another win against Mexico on Tuesday would strengthen his hand still further. The gods of football were smiling on him on Friday. Before Argentina had settled in Cordoba, Raul Jimenez wasted two clear chances to put Mexico ahead in the first two minutes. Now the sides meet in Mendoza, Argentina’s wine growing region. “In vino veritas,” goes the old saying — in wine there is truth. Perhaps Tuesday night in Mendoza will shed some light on the veracity of Scaloni’s chances of taking Argentina into 2019 – and maybe into the next set of World Cup qualifiers.