27/07/2011 18:43 +0100 – CONMEBOL World Cup Qualifying kicks off this October, and with the FIFA World Cup heading to Brazil in 2014 and the hosts qualifying automatically, South America looks set for the most competitive bout of qualifiers since the single table system was introduced in 1996. With nine nations competing for 4.5 places in Brazil, less than half are likely to miss out on a ticket to the big show.
Vying for one of those seats will be Venezuela, who is hoping to make it to the World Cup for the first time in its history. A fruitful Copa America campaign that saw it finish fourth has catapulted La Vinotino 29 places in the FIFA rankings to 40th. The side that beat them in the third place playoff, Peru, jumped 24 places to 25th. At 80 percent, Conmebol now boasts a higher percentage of teams in the top 50 than any other confederation.
While the validity of FIFA's ranking system has been called into question ever since the table was introduced in 1992, in this instance it can be viewed as symbolic of the growing parity between South America's soccer nations.
Venezuela has reached its highest ranking in history, an accomplishment that was heralded by its governing body FVF (Venezuelan Football Federation) on Wednesday as a result of its "spectacular performance" in the Copa America. Venezuelan players both past and present have talked about 'belief' and the change of mentality that has been fundamental to its recent improvement. That they go into qualification above Ecuador and Bolivia as the eighth team in CONMEBOL is another significant step forward for coach Cesar Farias and his team.
"Our commitment as a country is growing," said Farias after arriving back in Caracas this week. "We are happier and more committed to the qualifiers that will begin in October. The whole of Venezuela hopes the national anthem will be [played] in Brazil in 2014... The commitment of these players and everyone else is to put maximum effort into our preparation to reach 2014. Let's dream together."
That dream now seems well within its grasp. While they remain outsiders, Copa America has left Venezuela with a tangible chance of making it to Brazil.
The tournament has also been hugely beneficial to Peru. La Rojiblanca arrived in Argentina at rock bottom after finishing the last round of qualifiers in last place with just three victories in 18 matches. And just as Peruvian soccer thought things couldn't get any worse, defender Carlos Zambrano and midfielder Luiz Ramirez joined two of its biggest stars, Claudio Pizarro and Jefferson Farfan, on the injury list just days before the tournament - an injury list that new coach Sergio Markarian labelled as "unusual" and "inexplicable," telling reporters, "This alters everything. I plan one thing and [have to] re-do it as I go along."
The 66 year-old Uruguayan did quite a job, securing a third place finish that has left his side, too, with a new found confidence ahead of qualifying.
"This group [has] changed," said goalkeeper Raul Fernandez," and [we've] started to believe in ourselves... We return home happy, this position means a lot to us and for all Peruvians."
Of the other teams that missed out on World Cup 2010, Ecuador, Colombia and Bolivia will have to pick themselves up following a disappointing month in Argentina. Having missed out on the chance of a playoff by just one point, Colombia and Ecuador had hoped for more successful Copas in the knowledge that Argentina, Brazil and Chile were all in states of transition after their exploits in South Africa.
Ecuador coach Reinaldo Rueda was given the vote of confidence by the FEF (Ecuadorian Football Federation) and was asked to continue his project through 2014. He has a lot of work ahead of him after managing just one point from his three group matches; a record replicated by Bolivia's Gustavo Quinteros, who will at least take some encouragement from his side's goalless draw with Argentina on the opening day of the tournament. If his side can stifle the bigger teams away from home, then the points it picks up in the dizzy heights of La Paz may be enough to see it make some sort of a challenge for a qualification slot.
Hernan Dario Gomez, meanwhile, will take positives from Colombia's performances, if not its quarterfinal defeat to Peru. Columbia have struggled desperately to get the best of its top player, Radamel Falcao, but that may change with the return of playmaker Giovanni Moreno. The Racing star was a huge loss to Los Cafeteros , resulting in a lack of creativity from its midfield throughout the tournament. A number of fine performances from the likes of Freddy Guarin, Pablo Amero and Carlos Sanchez suggest Gomez isn't too far away from finding the blend that can get Colombia to its first World Cup after missing out in 2010.
Finalists Uruguay and Paraguay will likely be favourites for the top slots alongside Argentina, who will enter qualification under a new coach following Sergio Batista's departure this week , while Claudio Borghi's Chile will also be confident of securing qualification.
The gruelling 16-match marathon kicks off October 7, and the repeated 'shocks' that the Copa brought serve only to prove there will be no dead rubbers this time around. As Venezuela goalkeeper Reny Vega said last week, CONMEBOL World Cup Qualifying 2014 "will be the harshest South America ever seen."