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Should Copa America be cut to save the 2022 World Cup qualifiers in CONMEBOL?

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Eight weeks have gone by since the coronavirus pandemic caused the sudden suspension of the Copa Libertadores, South America's Champions League, after just two of six weeks of group phase action. At the time, CONMEBOL was hoping for a restart on May 6, but that date has come and gone with no sign of a resumption. Some of South America's nations are making tentative plans for the return of football, but with Argentina closing its borders to commercial flights until Sept. 1, the ball will not be rolling for at least another four months.

The administrators have some difficult decisions ahead. Will they be able to complete the full calendar in a frenzy of fixtures? Might they have to switch to a shorter format? Or might the most prudent course of action be to move the entire thing to next year, with all the financial losses that would entail?

If the Copa Libertadores is tricky, the 2022 World Cup qualification process is even more so.

South America can pride itself on having the most competitive World Cup qualifying on the planet, where there is no such thing as an easy away game. Brazil nearly failed to make it to the 2002 World Cup and ended up winning the tournament; eight years later, Uruguay had to go through the playoffs to grab a spot in South Africa, where they reached the semifinals -- yes, the team that came fifth in South America finished in the world's top four.

Part of this can be attributed to the strength of the game in South America and the fact that, in footballing terms, the continent has only 10 nations. But there is also a significant administrative change to take into consideration. Starting from 1996, South America has used a marathon format of qualifiers, with all countries playing each other home and away.

You can't overstate the importance of this format. Up to that point, the teams were divided into two or three groups. Qualification was a quick process, with few matches, and there would often be long gaps between competitive games -- intervals in which it was easy for the likes of Brazil and Argentina to set up lucrative and challenging friendlies, but much more difficult for the less traditional nations.

From 1996, South America had the kind of organisation that Europe's national teams take for granted: regular competitive games and guaranteed income, with the chance to keep a team together, hire better coaches and invest in youth development.

The consequences of this are clear. Before 1996, Ecuador had only ever won five World Cup qualifiers in their entire history. Given a level playing field, they made rapid strides: making their tournament debut in 2002, reaching the second round four years later and playing a third tournament in 2014. It is not too long ago that Ecuador were South American football's version of Luxembourg, making up the numbers and hoping to avoid humiliation, and the same applied even more to Venezuela, a land more associated with baseball and beauty contests. But the 21st century has seen the rise of Venezuela, who won a World Cup qualifier away to Uruguay even before Brazil had done so. Indeed, runners-up in the 2017 World Under-20 tournament, Venezuela have unearthed a generation that gives them a realistic hope of making their senior debut next time round.

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But what will happen to the 2022 World Cup qualification process? It was supposed to kick off in March; the new hope is for a September start, but this is dubious. In fact, it is possible there will be no international football in South America this year, either because the game has not restarted or as a consequence of a decision to give priority to the club game. If so, South America will lose the FIFA dates in September, October and November -- a total of six matchdays to add to the two lost in March.

As it stands, there are five sets of FIFA dates scheduled for next year -- or 10 games -- but South America has 18 matches to fit in. The competition could perhaps be extended into 2022, although this will create coordination problems with other continents, especially in terms of the playoff dates.

A solution has been advanced in Europe: fit in an extra match in the 10-day FIFA dates, playing three games rather than two. But this is unlikely to work in a South American context as the travel distances between games are too vast, and CONMEBOL have already registered their displeasure.

It would seem that the continent has two ways out. One is to revert to the previous format of separate groups, with the financial and technical losses this would entail. The other would be to scrap the controversial extra Copa America, originally scheduled for the middle of this year but put back 12 months.

It is an unloved and unlovely extra version of the Copa, an unwieldy co-host between Argentina and Colombia -- two countries at opposite ends of the continent. The Copa is a money spinner for CONMEBOL and they would be reluctant to lose it, but in a universe of bad options, giving up the 2021 Copa might be the least harmful.