Why Brazil look shaky, and Messi & Co. better than ever

Onside/Offside is back! Each week, Luis Miguel Echegaray discusses the latest from the soccer world, including standout performances, games you might have missed and what to keep an eye on in the coming days. This week, LME previews the CONMEBOL World Cup qualifiers as world champions Argentina look favorites while a Brazil side in transition face issues to return to their formal glory.

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All eyes on South America. For the first time in more than 20 years, the men’s World Cup qualifying campaign begins with a South American champion as Argentina kick off their title defense on Thursday in Buenos Aires against Ecuador. Two other games occur that day as Peru travels to Paraguay and Colombia hosts Venezuela before Friday sees Uruguay vs. Chile and Brazil welcoming Bolivia.

As a Peruvian, my bias is strong, but due to the historical and cultural relationships between the nations, the star power, crowd atmosphere and geographical conditions, these are the most entertaining and challenging matches in all of international football. South America suffers and feels the raw elements of football like no other. In the words of the late Uruguayan journalist Eduardo Galeano, football is a metaphor for battle and in this part of the world, it can turn into the real thing. Other parts of the globe enjoy and savor the beautiful game. South Americans live it, for better or worse.

As these nations prepare for 2026 World Cup qualification — one where six direct spots (and one inter-confederation play-off slot) are up for grabs due to its expansion to 48 teams — I begin this week’s column to celebrate everything that comes with CONMEBOL’s World Cup qualifiers, from the emotional storylines to intense matchups and pumped up fans.

Lionel Scaloni’s World Cup winning squad — led by an in-form, content Lionel Messi — enter this window as the undoubted kings of the region. With three stars above their badge, La Albiceleste come to this campaign with all the talent and bravado necessary to make it to the World Cup in 2026. They haven’t lost a qualifying game since 2017 and that was before Scaloni’s arrival.

“The start is always complicated,” Scaloni said on the federation’s website. “The first round always has its shades. I hope our players arrive in shape and are able to enjoy the match with our people. And we have to compete, that’s what we like to do.”

Scaloni’s message is simple: Qatar’s World Cup win and all the celebrations that came with it since that joyous night in December is now a memory. It’s time to focus and do it all over again.

The squad remains strong and perhaps more dynamic as Manchester City’s Julián Álvarez continues to elevate his game, while others such as Chelsea’s Enzo Fernandez and Liverpool’s Alexis Mac Allister will be even more influential. Goalkeeper Emiliano Martínez and his defenders remain the team’s bedrock. it’s also great news for MLS who not only claim Messi but also two other members of the national team including Atlanta United’s Thiago Almada and FC Dallas’ Alan Velasco.

Argentina might go through some issues in their campaign, but I don’t expect them to happen until later on in qualifiers. In the end, thanks to an added spot in CONMEBOL for 2026, I see Argentina going through with relative ease, and favorites to win the region — something they didn’t do for Qatar 2022.

Edinson Cavani? Nope. Luis Suárez? Forget it. The oldest player in this Uruguayan squad is in fact 30-year-old Sergio Rochet. So what does that tell us? Welcome to Bielsa’s Uruguay where age, experience and reputation is as good as your current productivity and commitment to the cause. This is a young and willing Uruguay and in true Bielsa fashion, I expect fast-paced, volatile, often rigorous and eternally dedicated football.

I think El Loco is at his best in international competition and Uruguay’s Garra Charrua (tenacity and bravery on the pitch) should fit him like a glove. The question facing Uruguay will be about creating more complete matches. In the run up to Qatar, they made a mess of it and their legendary manager Oscar Tabarez had to say goodbye in November 2021 after 15 years on the job. At that time, they had lost four straight matches, conceded 11 and only scored one goal. In the end, they made it through as Diego Alonso brought some stability but at the World Cup they failed to get out of their group.

Enter Bielsa, who only chooses projects based on the community, the culture and how football exists within them. Uruguay, with a population of just 3.4 million, is small but proud, majestically rugged and lives under the ethos of hard work. Bielsa can bring the best out of this young squad, including Federico Valverde, Darwin Nuñez and Manuel Ugarte, players who were born to learn under someone like Bielsa.

I have high hopes for Uruguay in this campaign. And if they don’t do well, they’ll at least illustrate everything you’re meant to love about the game.

Brazil, the five-time World Cup champions, will never be short of talent and their chances of success are always alive and well. In fact, my first article for ESPN was on the Seleção and how I saw them as 2022 champions. In the end, it wasn’t to be, but when it comes to South American domination, it’s difficult to bet against them. Under former coach Tite, they won the previous CONMEBOL group without losing a single game. In fact, they only drew three times throughout the entire campaign. The rest were victories.

But now times are slightly different. Fernando Diniz, who also coaches Fluminense, is the team’s interim coach until next year when the federation hopes to bring Carlo Ancelotti to take care of Copa America duties and beyond. As my colleague Tim Vickery notes, Diniz is the ultimate hipster manager. Convention is not really his style.

But this season, he is regimenting his strategies and adapting to a more structured ideal. In turn, Fluminense are in the semifinals of Copa Libertadores, the coveted tournament that could be Diniz’s first major piece of silverware as head coach.

For the national team, this World Cup qualifying schedule starts with relative ease as Brazil hosts Bolívia and then takes a trip to Peru. But my only worry about Brazil is how the journey unfolds as they continue to play matches with this inexperienced manager on the international stage. This is a transitional Brazil, one where there is much change throughout the roster. The defensive unit has changed. Only Marquinhos and Danilo remain from the starting back four that started against Croatia in the World Cup quarterfinal loss. At 31, Neymar Jr. now plays in the Saudi Pro League, no longer a star figure in Europe. Lucas Paquetá, an important creative star for Brazil, was not called up due to a FIFA and English FA investigation into potential betting rule breaches. Vinicius Jr. is currently injured. Casemiro is not getting any younger.

So as you can see, this is not an impenetrable Brazilian side. But they are incredibly talented and when you compare this side to any other in South America aside from Argentina, it’s hard to think they’ll do the unthinkable, something that’s never happened before, and fail to qualify for a World Cup. It’s up to Diniz to let them express themselves.

But will they win the table again? I doubt it.

Welcome to South America, Félix Sánchez Bas. The Spanish manager left the Qatari national team and signed on as Ecuador’s manager in March after Gustavo Alfaro resigned due to contract and philosophical disagreements. First order of business for Sanchez? Play Argentina. Oh, and you’re already in the minus.

Due to the drama that came with right-back Byron Castillo’s falsified birth documents, FIFA punished Ecuador with a penalty fee as well as deducting three points at the beginning of their campaign. So if Ecuador wins against Argentina, it will only come back to zero.

Ecuador remains talented — with the likes of Moisés Caicedo, Gonzalo Plata and Pervis Estpuiñan — as well as Enner Valencia, who keeps delivering in Copa Libertadores with his Brazilian club Inter of Porto Alegre. Also, watch out for 16-year-old Kendry Páez — another wonderkid from Independiente del Valle (Caicedo’s former club) who will join Chelsea in the summer of 2025 when he turns 18.

But I worry that this job might be too much for Sanchez. The reason why Alfaro did such a great job with Ecuador was because his managerial style complemented the talent he had at his disposal. Not the other way around. When you instill a deep philosophy with Ecuador, it has to shine a light on the players as opposed to the players adapting to a system that may not suit them. We’ll have to wait and see how this one works out. Luckily for Ecuador, they’re too good to not make it in the top six. Their only enemies are themselves.

After failing to make Qatar’s World Cup, coupled with the inspired journey of the women’s team this summer, I think Colombia arrives at these qualifiers with a renewed sense of self and a point to prove. I see a renaissance for Los Cafeteros as they look to make 2026 with an exclamation point.

The final paragraph goes to Peru. My beautiful nation. They are in the bottom three of least valuable teams in the continent and the roster clearly shows it, though they still have the likes of Paolo Guerrero, André Carrillo and Yoshimar Yotún. Beloved Tacu Tacu Rigatoni king Gianluca Lapadula is injured so Peru need all the help they can get, and it will be tough against a dynamic Paraguay and Brazil in the second game.

There is promising youth, however. Watch out for Piero Quispe, who will play in Europe in the future. I am sure of it. But all in all, I hope Peru show some fire under coach Juan Reynoso. Peruvians will never forget how former head coach Ricardo Gareca led them to the 2018 World Cup. But those days are gone. It’s time to look forward.

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