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Thursday, 11 April, 2002, 17:07 GMT 18:07 UK

Blatter seeks qualifying compromise

By Tim Vickery
BBC Sport Online

Fifa wanted South America to drop its marathon World Cup qualifying format, where all of the continent's 10 countries play each other home and away.

South America wanted to retain the system. How could peace be found?

Answer - as quickly as you can say "election year".

Sepp Blatter is seeking a second term as Fifa president and he wants South America's support.

In return, he can find a way to give the continent what it wants without alienating the European clubs, who were furious at having to release their South American stars for so many matches.

International football in Europe runs full-time. When World Cup places are not at stake, there is the fight to qualify for the European Championships.

The same is not true in South America.

With just 10 footballing nations, two countries from outside are usually invited to make up the numbers for the continent's regional tournament, the Copa America.

The solution then, is obvious - start South America's World Cup preliminaries earlier, the dates coinciding with those of the European Championship qualifiers.

Since the giant clubs will be releasing their local players for the European games, no extra inconvenience is caused by letting their South Americans go.

International calendar

If ratified, the move would put South America on a permanent World Cup footing. The qualifiers for 2006 would start next year, for example.

Under such a system it would be extremely difficult to continue with the current practice of staging the Copa America every two years.

To fit in with the international calendar, it would have to be held at four-year intervals.

Indeed, it seems that the next Copa, to be hosted by Peru, will be pushed back a year to 2004.

But for the South Americans - and in particular the smaller nations - reducing the frequency of the Copa America is a price well worth paying.

The marathon World Cup qualifying format has been held twice.

It comes with the obvious advantage of extra income, but the benefits on the pitch are also clear.

The opportunity to play regular competitive games has led to a dramatic increase in standards.

The best example is Ecuador, who had only ever won five qualifiers before the format was introduced.

They recorded six victories in the France 98 campaign, and nine wins this time sent them through to their first World Cup finals.

Now the only South American side who have never made it to the finals are Venezuela.

Strength in depth

And towards the end of the campaign the traditional whipping boys became the continent's form side, winning four games in a row.

Those who doubt that standards have risen can be silenced with a single fact; Chile, who finished the qualifiers in last place, recently beat world champions France.

A quick glance at a European qualifying group is sufficient to reveal which sides are in contention, and which are merely making up the numbers.

That is no longer true in South America. A point has now been reached where the away side can never take the field certain of a win.

From Argentina to Venezuela, all the teams can start the campaign dreaming of success.

It is a claim that no other region in the world can make.

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