D-day looms for World Cup qualifying in South America with doubts over European stars

South America this week underlined its commitment to begin the long road to the 2022 World Cup next month. But everyone might just have to accept that it won't be possible.

The CONCACAF region has already admitted defeat in running a normal qualifying system, and now won't get started until March next year.

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That is a lead that CONMEBOL, the South American confederation, does not want to follow. It faces the same problem as CONCACAF, that the coronavirus pandemic has not been brought under enough control to allow international football to restart.

The problem is CONMEBOL is unwilling to give up the marathon format of qualifiers that it has used since 1996, with all 10 countries playing each other home and away. But time is against them. Four rounds, the double headers of March and September, have already been lost. Lose any more and it starts to become a real squeeze to fit in 18 rounds before Qatar 2022. So it is clinging to the hope that the competition can start just over three weeks from now.

Much of this desire is based, of course, on television revenue. With the exception of Uruguay, the national FAs have sold the TV rights to their team's matches on the basis of nine home games and nine away. A shorter format, with fewer games, would presumably call for an unwelcome renegotiation.

There is, though, an obvious problem. The value of the TV rights is not solely based on the fact that the national teams will take the field. It also reflects the presence of some of the world's greatest players. And the likes of Lionel Messi, Neymar, James Rodriguez, Luis Suarez and Arturo Vidal are all based in Europe and while the coronavirus is around, that looks like a real problem.

CONMEBOL has issued a statement, emphasising that FIFA president "Gianni Infantino assured that the existing rules will be followed in relation to the release of the players by the clubs in favour of the national teams." But the European clubs are understandably reluctant to let their expensive assets cross the Atlantic for over a week.

There are obvious health concerns, but that is not the end of the story. There is a bureaucratic obstacle. Travellers from South America to Europe have to serve a quarantine period on arrival. If this is enforced on the players on their return to Europe they will be out of action for a couple of weeks, by which time the November FIFA dates will be looming, with the possibility of another 10 days away followed by two more weeks of quarantine.

FIFA altered the conditions for the UEFA Nations League and under-21 matches which took place last week, allowing clubs to refuse to release players if they would have to serve a period of quarantine. But, for the most part, countries set up travel corridors for elite sport, removing the need for quarantine to be observed. However, this largely involved national teams travelling together in a bubble. In the case of European players travelling to South America, they may well be doing so independently which raises serious questions about how quarantine.

Infantino may have some leverage with the European clubs, but this goes way beyond football. Can he really force European governments to waive quarantine restrictions for returning South American footballers? It is not clear why governments should take this step, especially as the bigger clubs may actually want quarantine restrictions to remain in place to give them justification not to release their players.

To go ahead with World Cup qualifiers without the Europe-based stars looks improbable. To be able to count on those stars in three weeks would, unless Infantino can pull off some political magic, seem like wishful thinking. FIFA's president is due to report back on Thursday. We should find out then whether the South American football authorities have found a way to square the circle.