It’s finally here. South America’s two-year internecine war will be wrapped up one way or another tonight. Two teams will join Brazil and Uruguay in heading to the World Cup Finals in Russia next summer, and another will keep its dream alive via a playoff against some nerds from New Zealand. The matches played tonight are the final act of a grueling 18-match round-robin in the world’s toughest qualifying competition.
The beautiful problem we have tonight is that there are five teams within two points of each other fighting over those three open spots. I implore you to watch the matches, as the shitshow is sure to be a firecracker of a time. Follow the best drama in sports, where teams vie with longtime rivals over the chance to reach football’s biggest stage. The legacies of all-time great players could be upended to make way for the euphoria of overdue underdogs. Entire nations’ hopes become a litter of Schrödinger’s felines, hanging in the balance as goals scored thousands of miles away could be manna from heaven or the release of the guillotine.
Let’s recap how CONMEBOL got into this mess. A continent known for exporting high-grade stimulants delivered a sweet bundle in Thursday’s matches. Instead of giving interested viewers the Bobby Brown jaw, these matches were more like nitroglycerin. They were relatively stable, following a predictable path, and then all fucking hell broke loose. Here was the table going into Thursday night (again, note the top four teams automatically go to Russia, and the fifth goes to a two-legged playoff against New Zealand).
Brazil played in Bolivia while Uruguay and Venezuela met up in the early, non-consequential matches. Colombia hosted Paraguay, Peru visited Argentina and Chile let Ecuador come through. All of the teams involved in those matches still had something to play for. As such, all three matches started at 6:30 p.m. to ensure fairness among the squads.
The Argentina and Peru match was a rough and exciting 0-0 draw. Peru hung on by a thread as Argentina sent wave after wave of attacks. Leo Messi did his godmode shit, picking up the ball deep and skirting past multiple defenders like they were sedated children. It took lucky bounces, some quality last-ditch defending, high-level goalkeeping from Pedro Gallese and some shit finishing from Argentina to keep the score even. Peru created a few of their own chances, but they were far fewer than the Albiceletes’, and los Incas were surely glad to escape with a point.
In the other matches, however, shit started popping off late. In a span of 13 minutes, a barrage of goals across the other two matches turned the CONMEBOL table into a roller coaster where seat belts were merely suggested for insurance reasons. Teams went from entirely eliminated to having all the hope in the world, while others went from surely heading to Russia to fighting for their lives. It’s the way of life in South American football, where there is certainly a hierarchy, but the ridiculous altitudes, tough-ass tackles, animosity and overall technique mean any team on its day can give better opposition hell and even bust that ass.
At about 8:04 p.m. (not including extra time from the first half), here was what the table looked like. Chile was up on Ecuador on a 1-0 goal from the first half, while Colombia had finally broken through against Paraguay with a Radamel Falcao goal in the 79′. Colombia and their fans were celebrating officially punching their ticket to the Russia, while Paraguay and Ecuador were on the outs. While there was still one match to go, the table left two-time world champion and historically great side Argentina on the outside looking in, losing out on goal difference to Peru.
Five minutes later, things took a turn. Ecuador kept on attacking and struck back, tying Chile 1-1 via a Romario Ibarra strike.
Ibarra’s goal changed the table’s complexion considerably. Suddenly, Chile were on the outs while Peru and Argentina had a little more wiggle room going into the final matchday. Ecuador was still technically eliminated at this moment, but the swashbuckling side suddenly had new hope and could really be In This Shit with a game-winning goal in the final five minutes and extra time of the match.
Oh, Ecuador. Oh, you sweet, beautiful idiots. What makes Ecudaor, bless their hearts, so wonderful is that they fucking love attacking and will hit teams on the counter at a blinding pace down the touchlines before finding a teammate streaking into the box for a cutback. The play leads to a lot of mouth-watering chances and high-intensity football. However, the team doesn’t just sell you half the horse, dear reader. Ecuador also makes note to forego things like defensive priorities, organization or making the simple, ugly play, giving their opponents their own opportunities to see the goal. Well, yeah.
About a minute and a half after getting resuscitated on the operating table, Ecuador choked while trying to eat a mustard packet whole. Alexis Sanchez’s clean-up goal meant Chile was back in fourth place with cushion on Peru and Argentina while Paraguay and Ecuador were both donezo.
But wait! There’s more! Four minutes later, Paraguay saw the writing on the wall and figured, “Eh, our summer’s still open anyways, we might as well give this Russia thing a try.” Oscar Cardozo scored in the 89′ to tie the match with Colombia. Suddenly Colombia was a lot closer to the rest of the lot while Paraguay was within striking distance of the play-off spot, although they’d be hard-pressed to make up the goal differential deficit in one match.
Scared money don’t make money, and Paraguay had some guaraní sin miedo. After withstanding a barrage of Colombian misses on golden opportunities to win, Antonio Sanabria cleaned up a David Ospina spill to take the lead in added time. With that and the other matches ending, this is what the table looked like at 8:17 p.m., as it does entering the final matchday:
Colombia went from surefire qualifiers to fourth place, with only a tiny margin for error heading into tonight. In the amount of time it takes to make at least a respectable sandwich, Paraguay went from also-rans to serious threats to unseat one of the most renowned sides in the world.
Let’s take a moment to highlight just what’s at stake for each of the teams here:
Chile – The chance to continue to build on its current run of success, including winning back-to-back Copa America titles in 2015 and 2016, knockout round appearances in each of the last two World Cups and an appearance in the Confederations Cup final this past summer. It could also be the last chance to chase World Cup glory with world-class players like Arturo Vidal (age 30) and Alexis Sanchez (28).
Colombia – The chance to build on a quarterfinals appearance at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil while also not falling below expectations related to the nation’s Golden Generation.
Peru – Oh, just the chance to bring a football-starved nation its first World Cup appearance since 1982, when the nation’s GOAT Teofilo Cubillas and leader of Peru’s own Golden Generation hung up his boots. It’s the longest drought outside of Venezuela, who have never qualified. The current Peruvians aren’t downplaying the weight of the moment.
Argentina – Nothing serious. Just that Argentine fans have been clamoring for a third title since Maradona’s ’86 masterpiece, and failing to qualify would be the first time they miss the World Cup since 1970. They also have the greatest player to ever kick a ball in their squad and could blow the – probably – last chance Lionel Andres Messi, El Dios de Rosario, La Unica Fuerza que Mueve El Cielo con su Pie, is at or near his prime for a World Cup run. Having lost three finals (one World Cup, two Copa Americas) over the last three years, Argentina are hankering for a trophy.
Paraguay – A chance to get back to the World Cup after missing in 2014, their first absence since 1994. If Paraguay plays their cards right, they could even get their retired players to stop talking shit about them.
Here’s tonight’s matches and each team’s situations heading into them:
Chile at Brazil – Chile head into São Paulo to face the second-best team in the world who’ve dominated this qualification cycle. I had my concerns about Brazil rolling out a pup squad to experiment and avoid injury, but the team seems to be going for it. The team fielded its stars, including Mr. Quarter Billi Neymar himself, in their 0-0 draw in Bolivia on Thursday. For my own selfish interests, I hope Brazil give their fans one last great show in qualifications and field their strongest team. For Chile, a draw would all but get them into at least the playoff. The 27 points would mean only one of Colombia or Peru could leapfrog them as well as Argentina were they to win. Paraguay could tie them with 27 points, but in all likelihood couldn’t make up the 7-goal differential. If Chile lose, it gets a shitload hairier for them, as all four teams could very easily jump them, if Peru and Colombia were to tie and they were to lose by more than one goal.
Colombia at Peru – Peru welcome Colombia at Estadio Nacional de Lima for what looks like a win-and-you’re-in matchup. Had Colombia won on Thursday, they would have been safely qualified, which could have been a boon for my beloved Incas. However, now they could find themselves on the outs if they don’t play their shit right. Their one-point cushion over Peru and Argentina is critical here, as it means a tie will also just about see them make at least the playoff. A draw keeps Peru one point behind while only Argentina could pass them. Paraguay could again match them with 27, but, again, goal differential.
For Peru, the task became more complicated with Paraguay’s Thursday heroics. That put them well within striking distance, and with a matchup against bottom-of-the-table Venezuela, they have a great chance to win and get to 27 points. Had they lost to Colombia, they would only have had to worry about Argentina leapfrogging them. Now they have two teams behind them, both with very winnable matches, to concern them. If they draw and those two win, Peru would be in 6th place at best. Here’s the scenario where Peru survives with a draw: Chile loses by 2+ goals and either Argentina or Paraguay lose or tie. In that case, the worst-case scenario is the 5th spot and playoff.
Peru can’t afford to play for a tie with such uncertainty, so here’s a simpler plan: go get a win against the world’s 10th-ranked team in front of your euphoric home fans in the biggest match of your lives. It won’t be easy, but it’s doable, and it would clear a lot of shit up. Peru would have 28 points and leave Colombia behind with 26 while also being out of reach for Paraguay. The worst it could end up in is 5th place, were Chile to win and Argentina to beat Ecuador more soundly than Peru over Colombia to go ahead on goal differential. In the best case, Argentina draw or lose while Chile loses, bumping Peru up to third in the continent and booking its trip to Russia. Never a doubt.
Argentina at Ecuador – Ecuador are officially eliminated, so Argentina might be facing a team sapped of morale after Thursday’s heartbreaker. They lost to Ecuador 2-0 in Buenos Aires in Matchday 1 of this cycle, and those swashbuckling Ecuadorians are liable to put on a show, elimination be damned. Argentina are going to have to go out and beat a quality team capable of both lighting them up or getting torched by their own rich attacking talent.
Argentina currently in 6th place, behind Peru on goals scored. The team is also threatened by Paraguay’s ascension and have to almost treat today’s match as a must-win. Here are a few scenarios where a draw could leave them with 26 points, the world’s greatest player and an entirely free summer schedule:
Chile loses by only one goal, Peru and Colombia draw, Paraguay wins – Argentina in SEVENTH (7th)
Chile loses by 2+; Peru and Colombia draw; Paraguay wins – Argentina in 6th.
Chile loses by 2+; Peru beats Colombia by only one goal; Paraguay wins – Argentina in 6th
If Argentina draw, these combinations could get them in:
Peru and Paraguay lose – Argentina in 5th at worst, could leapfrog Chile for 4th place if they lose by 2+
Chile loses by 2+; Paraguay wins; Peru loss OR Colombia loss by 2+ goals OR Colombia loss by 1 goal and Argentina scores 4 more goals than Colombia on Tuesday night – Argentina in 5th place over Colombia via head-to-head tiebreaker.
Chile draw/win; Peru loss; Paraguay loss – Argentina in 5th
Chile lose by 2+; Peru loss; Paraguay loss – Argentina in 4th
Argentina could technically advance with a loss if both Paraguay and Peru lose, but that’s a big ask. Instead, a win would put them at 28 points and through to at least the playoff. They would be beyond Paraguay’s reach while only Colombia or Peru could catch them with a victory. A win, a Chile loss and a Peru win of a smaller goal differential than Argentina’s own victory would leave Argentina sitting pretty in the 3rd spot. It’s advisable the team with the best player in the world just go out and win this fucking match to avoid ringing a triangle that sets off a crushing avalanche of indignity this generation of players may never climb out from.
Paraguay at Venezuela – Paraguay have a great chance to get to 27 points against bottom-feeders Venezuela, although Venezuela have been playing relatively better with 1 win, 2 losses and 4 draws over its last 7 qualifiers. Anything less than a win and they are, how do you say, proper fucked. They’d need Peru and Argentina to both lose by at least 7 goals each to advance with a draw because their currently-shit goal differential of -5. If Paraguay take three points while Peru and Argentina each do not win, Paraguay is, as the kids say, in there like swimwear. There being 5th place, but still into the playoff. Add a Chile loss to that and they could reach as high as fourth place.
Paraguay could advance with Peru and Argentina victories, though, if Chile takes that L in Brazil. Paraguay will be huge Brazilian and Ecuadorian fans tonight, because any Chile points and an Argentina victory essentially means elimination for Paraguay. They can’t be expected to make up goal differential, and they’ll be stuck behind those two with the chance to only get ahead of one of Peru or Colombia.
For Paraguay, the path to least resistance would be the great shame of the Pacific Coast, with both Chile and Peru losing. That would ensure them at least 5th place with the chance for more.
Bolivia at Uruguay – Not particularly important since Bolivia is eliminated and Uruguay have 28 points and a massive goal differential lead. The worst they could realistically drop to is 4th place.
For my own interests, I mostly need Peru and Argentina to make it in. I’m a first-generation son of a Peruvian, and Leo Messi is the closest thing I have to an omnipotent figure in my life. I need to see Peru make the World Cup in my lifetime (which will be easier as it expands to 48 teams in 2026), but I’d be heartbroken if the world is deprived of Messi’s last best chance to win a World Cup and polish off his resume as the GOAT for any remaining apostates. If I can really have it all, Peru and Argentina get in at the expense of Chile, noted thiefs of land, water and bicycle kick naming rights. Hell, those unoriginal bums have even tried to take goddamn potatoes from Peru in the last 10 years.
So pull up about four screens and watch gifted geniuses dance alongside battle-worn tanks of men not afraid to cut them down with an unforgiving tackle. There’ll be beautiful one-twos and through balls, players taking defenders on and hopefully some screamers, all interrupted by the mandatory pause as somebody gets the shit kicked out of them. It should be some 100 percent, uncut drama as the CONMEBOL table shape shifts and entire countries go from ecstatic to despondent in moments. It’ll be a hell of a time no matter who you root for. Just don’t cheer for Chile.