Nothing compares to South America's World Cup qualifying marathon

You know the next World Cup cannot be too far off when the big boys begin qualifying. Russia 2018 qualifying gets underway Thursday in South America (TV schedule).  Lionel Messi, Neymar, Luis Suarez and James Rodriguez are among the missing for the first two of 18 dates in the most competitive -- and surely most grueling -- of all regional competitions.

The tournament consists of 10 teams playing 18 games over nine double dates. The top four teams qualify for the finals in Russia, and the fifth-place team will play the Oceania winner in a playoff. In 2014, five Conmebol teams -- Argentina, Colombia, Chile, Ecuador and playoff winner Uruguay -- went to the finals, where they were joined by host Brazil. That's six out of 10 teams, easily the highest ratio of finalists to entrants of any confederation. But South America certainly warranted the high regard FIFA's World Cup organizers held it in.

Argentina finished second, Brazil was fourth, Colombia reached the quarterfinals and Chile and Uruguay the round of 16 as five of South America's six entrants made it to the knockout stage of the 2014 World Cup. Only Ecuador fell at the first hurdle.

At this summer's Copa America in Chile, Peru finished third and Paraguay was four while Bolivia reached the quarterfinals, which means eight out of 10 South America teams -- all but Ecuador and Venezuela -- reached the knockout stage of either the 2014 World Cup or 2015 Copa America or both.

South America presents some of the most difficult conditions in which players must compete. First of all, there's the in-season travel from Europe, where a majority of the players play, to South America and back. (There will be no qualifiers during the summer of 2016 or 2017.)

The Estadio Hernando Siles in La Paz and Estadio Olimpico in Quito are two of the most notorious venues in the world, so high up that FIFA once briefly banned qualifiers from being played there. At 8,660 feet above sea level, Bogota is certainly high enough, but Colombia prefers to stage its home matches in the steamy Caribbean port of Barranquilla, where opponents melt in the heat and humidity.

While many of South America's stars are missing -- Suarez is suspended for the first four qualifiers for his biting incident at the 2014 World Cup, Neymar must serve a two-game ban for his much-litigated Copa America suspension, while Messi and James are injured -- what is notable about the 10 teams on the starting line is the continuity in their coaching ranks.

With one exception, every South American team retained its coach at the Copa America: Argentina (Gerardo Martino), Brazil (Dunga), Chile (Jorge Sampaoli), Colombia (Jose Pekerman), Ecuador (Gustavo Quinteros), Paraguay (Ramon Diaz), Peru (Ricardo Gareca), Uruguay (Oscar Tabarez) and Venezuela (Noel Sanvicente). It's the quite of continuity U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati referred to in his now famous remarks after the Gold Cup that Jurgen Klinsmann isn't leaving any time soon.

The exception: Bolivia, which reached the knockout stage of the Copa America in its best performance since 1997 but has seen its soccer affairs descend into chaos. Its federation boss, Carlos Chavez, tried to fire Marcelo Soria in a dispute over money, but that move was complicated because a slight problem. Chavez was jailed by authorities in a corruption scandal. Spaniard Miguel Angel Portugal was eventually hired to replace Soria but never coached a game as his appointment was blocked by local clubs. Julio Cesar Baldivieso will coach Bolivia in World Cup qualifying, but he isn't off to the best start. Bolivia lost a warmup game to Argentina, 7-0, in Houston.

You'd figure the Bolivians would heavy underdogs when they open Thursday against Uruguay, but they're not. They're playing at home in La Paz (11,800 feet above sea level), where Uruguay has never won.

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