Matches between Brazil and Argentina are nothing short of blockbuster affairs, but tonight’s game – a 2026 World Cup qualifier at the Maracana – already has a different story about it.
Argentina sits at the top of the South American pile. Despite last week’s defeat to Uruguay, it has been a year marked by calmness and clarity. The skeletons of last year’s World Cup-winning side are still there, led by two gods, Lionel Messi and Lionel Scaloni. Their fans will decorate Rio before the games start and on this occasion their supremacy will be confirmed.
Brazil lost two consecutive qualifying matches for the first time in history. They were unbeaten in a qualifier against Colombia before last Thursday’s 2-1 defeat at Barranquilla. They have conceded more goals in five matches than they did in the 2022 World Cup qualifiers. Argentina, Uruguay, Colombia and – yes – Venezuela lead the rankings. They have lost four of their eight matches in 2023, including friendlies.
Surprisingly, the Selecao have never lost at home in a World Cup qualifier. If that changes on Tuesday night, the dial on the crisis-o-meter will enter the red zone.
If there is one crumb of comfort for Brazil, it is that they still, despite the mass start, hold one of the automatic qualifications. Of course, whatever happens tonight – whatever Carlo Ancelotti does before Fernando Deniz leaves next June, even – the situation is salvageable. Not only because the Selecao are expected to be in some form, but because South America’s qualification for the 2026 World Cup holds all the bouncy castles in jeopardy.
The World Cup finals will expand from 32 teams to 48, with six of the 10 South American nations automatically qualifying and the seventh entering the inter-confederation play-offs. This is four automatic places and one play-off place, which was the format of the last seven tournaments. Brazil (or Argentina, for that matter) can be fully motivated and still compete for games.
And that’s the importance of tonight’s game. Zoom out a bit and it’s hard to ignore the shifting sands of South America’s game. This qualifier is not just another continental grudge match. It may be one of the last.
There is – or at least was – a kind of beauty to the current double-robin league style that was introduced before the 1998 World Cup.
First of all, it’s democratic: everyone plays everyone, so you can’t argue that you were on the wrong end of a rotten draw or that those teams didn’t deserve it. The two best teams (Argentina and Brazil) and the two best teams in the region (Venezuela and Bolivia) and the qualifiers were actually spread between 1998 and 2022.
For business, the appeal was easy to understand. The smaller countries had nine guaranteed home games, two against real international giants, which was good for ticket sales and TV rights deals. Unlike the European Championship, given that there is no qualification for the Copa America, the matches fill the calendar between competitions.
It was equally successful from a narrative point of view. With so many games taking place over such an extended period of time, there was time for stories to be created, for resources to be exchanged. A qualifying team may be struggling after two years. In this age of instant gratification, his rugged, relentless demeanor was part of his charm. It was a marathon, not a sprint.
However, there have long been doubts about the format in Argentina and especially in Brazil. In the year You can dig up the news reports in 2005 about the Brazilian federation’s interest in switching to a round-robin format, and the background noise that has been increasing in recent years.
Many arguments illuminate the traveler, which ignores the obvious environmental implications of the inhumane limits. South America is a large continent. Dublin is closer to Caracas than Montevideo is to New York City. A six-hour flight to and from away games is not uncommon, and that’s after a good portion of the players have crossed over from Europe.
Former Brazil captain Thiago Silva said last year: “Compared to European teams, it’s a lot of miles.” “If we can somehow get more balance, it will definitely improve our safety and performance level. It makes us tired,” he said.
Inevitable fatigue creates tension with clubs who are not always happy when their star players are boated home on the eve of crucial matches after being shot in La Paz or Lima 24 hours earlier. The arms race between Brazil and Arsenal over the fitness of Gabriel Jesus, who is expected to start tonight despite missing Arsenal games, is the latest example of strained relations.
Other complaints have been less convincing so far this campaign. One was that the tournament was basically too easy for Brazil and Argentina, with a lot of meaningless games. The giants have qualified for every World Cup between 1998 and 2022. However, this ignores three pretty close shaves: Brazil had to rally in the final round to qualify for the 2002 tournament, while Argentina barely stumbled in 2010 and 2018. In reality, the level of risk may be justified.
No, this was more about ambition. Argentina and especially Brazil are tired of the qualifiers with wins against Bolivia and Venezuela. In 2021, UEFA and CONMEBOL (South American Football Confederation) are discussing the creation of a joint Nations League, with ambitions of playing against top European teams.
On the one hand, this is motivated by sports considerations. Argentina and Brazil often feel at a disadvantage at the World Cup because they haven’t tested themselves enough against the best sides. This is why they are not happy about the introduction of the UEFA Nations League: it took some days to organize friendlies in Europe. It is no coincidence that Brazil have been eliminated by their first qualified European team in recent World Cups.
Predictably, there is an economic argument here as well. Matches against England and Portugal will be more profitable than matches between Ecuador and Peru. The North American market is also becoming attractive. Brazil has never been afraid to use its international cachet – I can testify to the Brazilian Global Tour – but the matches rarely produce a grainy competition. Freeing up eight or nine extra dates every four years would allow them to accommodate more high-profile opponents.
(Ironically, one of the biggest issues with the Selecao in Brazil is the disconnect between the team and the Brazilian public. Abandoning home games for continued globetrotting is unlikely to please critics on that front.)
All this may seem unfair. The idea resonates with the kind of big-fish-in-a-small-pond syndrome behind the proposed European Super League.
His performance in World Cup expansion and qualification for Brazil and Argentina was arguably good. Now, with 70 percent of the continent’s teams likely to make it to the 2026 World Cup, the risk-averse argument takes on a greater focus. Ninety games to eliminate three countries? Yeah, that actually sounds a little silly.
In short, last year, it looks like things could change in time for 2026. CONMEBOL officials expressed doubts about the tournament’s competitive and commercial viability. Discussions have been held with Brazil leading the way on an alternative format involving two teams in five groups. But in the end, the talks were futile. Some other federations have sold TV rights to existing formats and are understood to be reluctant to break those contracts.
But for the current system, it could be a short implementation period. Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay will each play one game in the 2030 World Cup. Where this playoff will go is anyone’s guess.
Some federations have suggested sticking to the usual 10 teams, with the three hosts participating, but this would be a method of violence and corruption. So how do you prepare for the remaining seven races? How many accommodations are competing? Even the most sensible idea – a seven-team round robin, say, with the top three teams joining the hosts – would probably offend Brazil, who still have 12 games to play, but not against Argentina or Uruguay.
It’s not an easy knot to untangle, and that’s before you get to the implications for 2034 and beyond.
With so much uncertainty, wild theories abound. One is that CONMEBOL itself is at risk. It is an anonymous federation by definition. The size (10 members) is divided by UEFA (55), the Confederation of African Football (54) and the Asian Football Confederation (47), which means that they have to employ certain solutions: invite teams from outside the federation to play in the game. For example, Copa America.
The recent speculation between CONMEBOL and CONCACAF (Northern Confederation, Central American and Caribbean Association Football) – next summer, the Copa America will be held in America for the second time in eight years – has led to some whispers about the future integration.
It is a Frankenstein’s monster in terms of language, culture and sports tradition. It will also be a political minefield. Financially, however, it is said to have some appeal, especially with Brazil’s experience with foreign investment and the domestic game.
For now, it’s wise to take every suggestion—even the logical ones—with a grain of salt. Nothing is more outdated than predicting South American soccer predictions. But as Brazil and Argentina square off at the Maracana, it’s worth pausing to reflect on the direction of the journey.
It will be the eighth time this century that they meet for World Cup qualifiers. The ninth will follow in March. After that, it is unclear when they will compete next. Nothing stays the same forever, but for someone enthralled by this rivalry—and by the strange, implacable mammoth that is the South American standard—a sense of loss is inevitable.
(Top photo: Gustavo Ortiz/Photo Consortium via Getty Images)