By the time South American World Cup qualifying resumes in late March, more than four months will have passed since the last round of qualifiers –- and much has changed.
A wild spending on players by Chinese Super League clubs has brought many South American players to that far-off land, posing questions to the national-team head coaches: do they bring those players back halfway around the world to play in tough and crucial qualifiers?
For several decades, South American head coaches have grappled with the issues of fatigue and jet lag regarding players coming back to the continent from Europe to play crucial matches on just a few days’ preparation. Now they must contend with players traveling even longer distances.
The distance from Beijing to Buenos Aires is nearly one-half the circumference of the Earth (24,901 miles), so there's not much difference between flying through Europe or stopping off in California. It's a long, long haul either way. The longest non-stop, regularly scheduled flights cover about 8,500 miles and take around 16 hours in the air. The Beijing-Buenos Aires trip covers nearly 12,000 miles and more than 23 hours flight time.
While most coaches have yet to name their squads for the two rounds of matches that start March 24, several have already indicated their perspective regarding moves to the Far East.
Ecuador head coach Gustavo Quinteros has guided his team to four straight victories in the opening rounds of the qualifiers but he’s not taking any chances regarding forward Miller Bolanos, who has played every minute of those four games. When it seemed likely a Chinese team would whisk Bolanos away from Emelec in January, Quinteros – who had brought Bolanos into the first team at Emelec before taking the national team job – suggested that to him the move not might be in the best interests of his international career.
Bolanos instead went to Brazilian club Gremio and though an injury might rule him out of the qualifiers in late March, his selection won’t be endangered by the grueling demands of a long journey home.
Such decisions often hinge at least partly on a player’s importance to the team as well as availability and fitness of other candidates. Colombia head coach Jose Pekerman has indicated he probably won’t summon striker Jackson Martinez (Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao) nor midfielder Fredy Guarin (Shanghai Greenland Shenhua) from their Chinese clubs. Both have played in the qualifying campaign but neither is deemed essential to the team’s success.
The move of Argentine winger Ezequiel Lavezzi to Hebei China Fortune has landed him in that bubble of uncertainty. He’s played in all four of Argentina’s matches, but head coach Gerardo Martino might choose instead to go with Pablo Dybala of Juventus and/or Angel Correa of Atletico Madrid.
One coach who has already named his preliminary squad, former Brazilian international Dunga, has included two players toiling in the Chinese league for Brazil’s upcoming matches: midfielder Renato Augusto (Beijing Guoan) and centre back Gil (Shandong Luneng). Both of them left Corinthians in January.
Of course, the players as well as the coaches are subject to blame if performances and results don’t measure up. In return, club coaches and officials are always concerned that their international players will return injured or acutely fatigued. The travel pendulum swings in both directions.
Renato Augusto’s elegant midfield play helped Brazil beat Peru, 3-0, Nov. 17 and move into a three-way tie for third place in the 10-team group. The top four South American teams qualify automatically with the fifth-place team thrown into a pot for a two-game playoff that will determine another berth. Dunga may regard him as essential.
Gil’s place is more tenuous. He replaced David Luiz (suspended) for the Peru game but isn’t regarded more highly than Marquinhos, apparently preferred by Dunga over veteran World Cup veteran Thiago Silva, who has been passed over entirely several times by the head caoch.
Dunga, too, is on rocky ground. In this next set of games Brazil hosts bitter rival Uruguay, currently second in the group, and plays at Paraguay, which like Brazil has seven points from the first four games. Dunga’s second stint in charge, like his first, has been roiled by traditional controversies of tactics, formation and selection, but now he must also juggle the needs of his team with difficulties he -- and his players -- have never before encountered.