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Last Updated: Monday, 15 November, 2004, 09:40 GMT
All change in South America?
By Tim Vickery

Fifa president Sepp Blatter
Blatter wants to change the South American qualifying format
Fifa President Sepp Blatter has declared war on South America's World Cup campaign.

For the third time all of the nations in the continent are in one big group, playing each other home and away.

Blatter says that this is the last time that Fifa will accept such a marathon format.

His justification is based on two arguments, both of them flawed. Blatter says that there are not enough dates in the international calendar for a competition requiring 18 rounds. Not true.

The key point to remember is that South America only has 10 countries. All of them automatically take part in its local tournament, the Copa America.

The only qualifying matches staged in South America are for the World Cup. In Europe the national teams are permanently in action.

When they are not competing for a World Cup place, they are attempting to qualify for the European Championship.

There are enough dates in the calendar for Europe to play all of its qualifying games. Therefore there are enough dates for South America to play 18 rounds.

All that is necessary is for South America to start its World Cup matches earlier, making use of the dates Europe uses for its local qualifiers.

Brazil would rather use free Fifa dates to play lucrative friendlies against teams from Europe and Asia
In fact, this is already happening. South America started its World Cup campaign in September of last year, using the same dates as the closing fixtures in the Euro 2004 qualifiers.

Wednesday's 11th round of games is the only date in the 18 that doesn't coincide with a full programme of matches in Europe.

Blatter also argues that South America's current format is bad for the development of the game. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The marathon format has, for the first time ever, put South America's teams on level terms with Europe.

Previously there were huge gaps between matches and tournament. Now there are regular competitive games.

As a consequence the less traditional teams have come on in leaps and bounds. Ecuador, for example, had only ever won five World Cup qualifiers before the one big group format was introduced.

Then they won six in the France 98 campaign, and nine in the 2002 qualifiers, where they finished second and made their World Cup debut in Japan.

They have won four of their 10 games this time, and are hopeful of beating Brazil on Wednesday.

Such a result would have been unthinkable a decade ago - but when they last met in Quito in 2001, Ecuador were the winners.

It is ironic that these two teams are meeting at this time.

Blatter's remarks have been interpreted as a defence of the interest of the European clubs against the South American national teams. In reality, things are more complex.

There is a rift inside South America. The less traditional nations, and especially Ecuador, are keen to retain the current marathon format of World Cup qualifiers.

Brazil are not so enthusiastic. Why, they think, should they risk their prestige against the likes of Ecuador, Bolivia and Venezuela?

They would rather use free Fifa dates to play lucrative friendlies against teams from Europe and Asia.

The issue will be discussed and debated at the next meeting of the South American Federation's Executive Committee at the start of December.

Brazil and Ecuador will find themselves on opposite sides, and the outcome will probably have more long term significance than anything that happens between them on the pitch in Quito this Wednesday.

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