South America's World Cup qualifying tournament begins tomorrow, when the Group B favourites, Brazil, visit Ecuador while Venezuela meet Bolivia. Uruguay are the fifth team in this group, from which the top two qualify for the finals.
Argentina, the Group A favourites, commence their programme in Peru on 1 August. Colombia and Paraguay are also in this section, from which only the winners qualify for the finals automatically. The runners-up will play either Canada or Australia for a ticket to the United States.
Argentina won the Copa America (the South American championship) in Ecuador earlier this month, but they showed little to impress until Fiorentina's Gabriel Batistuta scored two tremendous goals to see off Mexico in the final.
Although Alfio Basile, Argentina's coach, can still call on the veteran defender, Oscar Ruggeri and the outstanding goalkeeper, Sergio Goyocochea, he is struggling to find a regular partner for Batistuta in attack. Roma's Claudio Caniggia is unavailable until one month before the finals, because of his suspension after testing positive for cocaine use.
Their Copa America success was hollow because, unlike Brazil and Uruguay, Argentina called up all their European-based exiles. The Brazilian World Cup squad contains 13 players who did not appear in the Copa.
However, even with Bebeto, Careca, Branco and others restored, Brazil struggled to beat Paraguay 2-0 in Wednesday's friendly in Rio de Janeiro. There were calls for the return of Romario, the PSV Eindhoven striker left out of the squad for disciplinary reasons.
If Brazil do not find their form, Ecuador and Uruguay could take points off them. Ecuador finished fourth in the Copa America and have fine forwards in Alex Aguinaga and Eduardo Hurtado. After a three-year absence because of a dispute with the coach, Luis Cubilla, Uruguay have recalled their European exiles, including Ruben Sosa and Daniel Fonseca - regular marksmen in Italy's Serie A.
In Group A, Colombia, who can call on Carlos Valderrama and Parma's Faustino Asprilla, will push Argentina all the way. The real test, though, for Latin America's finest will arrive next summer in the land of stars and strife.Reuse content