Although the next World Cup doesn’t kick off until June 2014, the qualifying rounds are already well under way. Between June 2011 and November 2013, 203 teams representing six regional federations will vie for 31 berths in the world’s biggest sports tournament.
The federations vary in both qualification method and level of competition. The Confederación Sudamericana de Fútbol (South American Soccer Federation—CONMEBOL) is second only to the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) in World Cup wins.
Among the FIFA conferences, CONMEBOL also has the fewest teams (10). Since World Cup–host Brazil automatically claims a spot, only nine teams will compete in qualifiers. Every CONMEBOL squad plays against one another twice on a home-and-away basis, in a process spread out over 18 match days and two years.
Ten match days have occurred through October 2012. The eleventh will take place on March 22, 2013. The four teams with most points after the 18 matches will qualify for Brazil. The fifth-place team will play its counterpart in the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) for the last berth.
CONMEBOL is flush with talent. While Argentina, captained by Lionel Messi, is leading the confederation by three points, the remaining competition is showing promise. The next five squads (Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Uruguay, and Chile) are within six points—the equivalent of two wins—of one another. Colombia, after failing to qualify for the 2010 World Cup, hired Argentine José Pékerman as manager earlier this year. A 4–0 dismantling of Uruguay at home, followed by a 3–1 victory against Chile in Santiago, show that Colombia, led by phenom striker Radamel Falcao, is a World Cup–worthy team.
Venezuela surprised many with a best-ever fourth-place finish in the 2011 Copa América, and has given a solid performance since. Conversely, Paraguay, which made it to the quarterfinals in South Africa 2010, sits at the bottom of the CONMEBOL standings.
The qualifying picture is quite different for the other soccer confederation in the hemisphere: the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF). This confederation, unlike CONMEBOL, has a multiple-round elimination system to whittle down the many competitors: 35 contenders compete for three berths, while the fourth-place finisher plays the winner of the Oceania Football Confederation (OFC) for the last spot.
The United States and Mexico have traditionally dominated CONCACAF, but the U.S. has struggled under coach Jürgen Klinsmann. Thanks to stars like forward Javier “Chicharito” Hernández, Mexico looks strong, earning a 4–2 Gold Cup win over the U.S. in 2011 and a gold medal at the 2012 London Olympics.
With 12 months of qualifying and the 2013 Confederations Cup in Brazil to go, a lot is still open. The CONMEBOL and CONCACAF teams that advance into the 2014 Cup will face a formidable Brazilian squad—led by 20-year-old sensation Neymar and 21-year-old Oscar—hungry to win at home. They will also face talented squads from other FIFA confederations around the globe.
One thing is sure: the road to Brazil will be paved with quality soccer—with all the excitement and drama the world has come to expect from fútbol en las Américas.