Messi goal as Argentina and Uruguay win, kicks off Conmebol’s World Cup qualifiers

October 9 – Paraguay and Peru drew 2-2, Uruguay defeated Chile 2-1 and Lionel Messi dragged Argentina to a 1-0 win over Ecuador on Thursday to get the South American qualifiers for the 2022 World Cup finally under way after the coronavirus shutdown.

In 1996, Conmebol introduced the marathon home-and-away World Cup qualifying format that has made any campaign in South America very competitive and difficult, but with 18 rounds of matches spread over more than two years the calendar in the region has little wriggle room.

Qualifying had been due to kick off in March, but those dates, along with the September window, were lost to the coronavirus shutdown. Backed by FIFA, Conmebol felt it was necessary to get the campaign under way this month even if the region still has one of the highest incidence of the coronavirus pandemic. Next year’s Copa America doesn’t allow for a backlog of matches.

Even so, clubs have been reluctant to release their players for international team duty, with some Major League Soccer teams refusing to let their players go. And their concern is obvious: all 10 South American nations will play once at home and once away this window. Traveling in South America is at best tricky and arduous, but in coronavirus times it can be dangerous.

Three weeks ago, Flamengo, the reigning Brazilian and South American club champions, suffered a massive Covid-19 outbreak among their squad and back-room staff after playing away in Ecuador in the Copa Libertadores. The club later acknowledged that it had been harder to ensure a bio-secure bubble away from home.

With all these concerns, the actual action on the pitch has almost become of secondary concern, but on Thursday, after a hiatus of 11 months, South America’s national teams finally took the field to embark on the long road to Qatar in 2022.

In Buenos Aires, Lionel Messi’s early penalty conversion was enough to ensure all three points for the hosts against Ecuador after an underwhelming match. Argentina travel to La Paz to play Bolivia on Tuesday.

Elsewhere, Peru and Paraguay played out a 2-2 drew in Asuncion and an injury-time strike from Maximiliano Gomez handed Uruguay a 2-1 victory over Chile to top the standings. On Friday, South American champions Brazil host Bolivia in Sao Paulo and Colombia meet Venezuela in Barranquilla.

Contact the writer of this story, Samindra Kunti, at moc.l1638367983labto1638367983ofdlr1638367983owedi1638367983sni@o1638367983fni1638367983