Since the inaugural World Cup in 1930, Brazil’s the only team to have attended every single tournament. But there are some real concerns about whether that streak will extend to 2018 when Russia hosts the Cup. Brazil has two games in the next week against teams sitting ahead of them – meaning Brazil can quiet those real, though perhaps premature, concerns early. However, that’s far from a lock. Standing in the way are games against Ecuador and Colombia, which present their own obstacles.
The current state of qualification is one of the reasons Brazil needed its gold medal in soccer at the Olympics. That win, regardless of the prestige of the tournament itself, provided hope that the nation known for its beautiful soccer would lift itself out of its doldrums and re-establish itself as a soccer power. As it is, Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay have all outperformed Brazil in recent international tournaments.
More than ever, Brazil could really use a morale boost from its Seleção. The country has been in a state of political turmoil for months, which came to a head this week with the ouster of its first female president, Dilma Rousseff – an impeachment she brands as a coup d’etat. In a 61-20 Senate vote, Rousseff was found guilty of breaking budgetary laws in an attempt to hide the true status of the nation’s economy. Current president Michel Temer, who was booed at the Opening Ceremony of the Olympics and has himself been the subject of serious corruption investigations, is now tasked with fixing Brazil’s economy and rising unemployment. Immediately after Rousseff’s ouster, the country erupted in protests. “Fora Temer” signs could be seen in cities across the country.
It’s been well documented that sports can distract from reality. University of Washington pysch professor David P. Barash describes sports as an “illusion of being part of something larger than ourselves and thus nurtured, understood, accepted, enlarged, empowered, gratified, protected.”
World Cup qualification in South America is certainly more of a marathon than a sprint, as it consists of 18 matches played over a two-year span. The top four teams qualify automatically and the fifth team goes into a playoff against a team from another region. This year, that region is Oceania, meaning the fifth placed team from South America will have a strong chance of advancing to the World Cup.
Unfortunately for Brazil, it currently sits in sixth place after the first six rounds, and a quick look at the standings shows that the race is going to be tight. Peru, Bolivia, and Venezuela are unlikely to mount a challenge for the top five, which means there are seven teams in contention. Of the current top five, Uruguay, Argentina, Chile, and Colombia have shown themselves over the last several years to have very strong teams, and you’d expect them all to remain in qualification spots.
Brazil’s likely eyeing Ecuador’s spot, but taking it won’t be easy. Ecuador’s the surprise of qualification so far. It’s tied with Uruguay in first place, having already defeated La Celeste once in Quito. Ecuador also has a win over Argentina in Buenos Aires. At Copa América Centenario, which Brazil admittedly didn’t make a top priority, the two teams tied after referees failed to award what should have been an Ecuador goal. Even on a neutral field, Ecuador has the strength to challenge Brazil, and the conditions in Quito will be anything but neutral.
Today’s qualifying match will take place in Quito, at the Estadio Olímpico Atahualpa. Road games in South America are always tough, but playing in Ecuador means the extra challenge of playing at elevation. It isn’t too long ago now that FIFA instituted a ban, since rescinded, on matches played above an altitude of 8,202 feet. The Quito stadium stands at an elevation of more than 8,858 feet. Though Brazil consistently has a much stronger team, it has lost at this venue on several occasions. According to Yahoo!, Brazil has never won a qualifying match in Quito in its three attempts. Failing to do so again would allow Ecuador to maintain a lead over Brazil of at least four points, while also allowing the rest of the pack to widen their advantages.
With or without a win in Quito, the pressure will continue to mount for Tuesday’s game in Manaus against Colombia. Although Brazil will enjoy a home advantage, Brazilian crowds have shown recently that they can quickly turn on the team if the product on the field is disappointing. Colombia also showed in 2014’s World Cup that it’s willing and able to hang with Brazil on the road. With opportunities limited at Real Madrid, James Rodríguez will be hungry to show that he’s still got it. We saw during Copa América how passionate he is about representing his country.