South America's top teams still have lots at stake despite low-key break
This week, Colombia coach Jose Pekerman announced that after more than six-and-a-half years in charge, he is stepping down. Meanwhile, Under-20 coach Arturo Reyes will take charge of the team for the friendlies against Venezuela and Argentina on Friday and Tuesday.
Reyes was asked to step in while Pekerman made up his mind on whether or not he wanted to continue. Pekerman's last match was the second round tie against England in the Russia World Cup, back on June 3. Three months later he has now made his decision. The Colombian FA has been waiting for an answer but even now, after all this time, they say that they have not prepared a Plan B.
The lack of urgency with which this issue has been treated has a simple explanation. The next few months are the silly season for South American national teams: there are no competitive matches until the Copa America next June and even that is mainly a preparation tournament, getting sides ready for the next set of World Cup qualifiers.
Until then, though, there is nothing but friendlies and the start of UEFA's Nations League has cut back CONMEBOL's chances for challenging trips across the Atlantic. Over the next few days, only Peru are testing themselves against European opposition, taking on Holland and Germany in a fascinating measure of their consolidation. Bolivia are heading off to face Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, Chile will take on Japan and South Korea and everyone else -- bar Paraguay, who have been busy naming Juan Carlos Osorio as their new coach -- will be spending the next 10 days in the United States.
Colombia are not the only team with a stand-in coach. Lionel Scaloni is keeping keeping the seat warm for Argentina until they name their next permanent boss, while it will be interesting to see if Pekerman is given a role. Uruguay have a youth boss in charge; Fabio Coito is standing in while the chaos within the local FA is sorted out and a fresh contract can be handed to Oscar Washington Tabarez.
In such circumstances -- low-profile friendlies with a number of caretaker coaches -- any and all results are clearly secondary but this doesn't render the games entirely meaningless. National teams have few chances to get together and so every opportunity needs to be taken. Training and travelling together are at least as important as playing matches.
This is obviously true in tactical terms, as players need to be aware of the team's model of play, but it is even more relevant in terms of human relations. South American national sides often have members scattered all over a number of different continents. They need to get together and forge bonds. Timid newcomers need to be made to feel at home; work done now, both on and off the field, can pay dividends when the serious stuff kicks off.
Four years ago, for example, Uruguay made good use of the "silly season" friendlies between the 2014 World Cup and the Copa America in Chile 12 months later. They gently integrated a new generation of players into their national team: of these newcomers, only Carlos Sanchez, Giorgian De Arrascaeta and Gaston Silva made the Russia 2018 squad. But several others, most notably Diego Rolan and Mathias Corujo, made an important contribution during the qualification campaign. Another, Gaston Pereiro, might get his chance to consolidate him spot during this next cycle.
The next few days, then, might see the start of some important international careers. New Barcelona signing Arthur promises to become the cerebral central midfielder that Brazil have lacked for so long. Once a mere battler, Walter Kannemann appears to have added more quality to his game and might provide some much needed solidity to the centre of Argentina's defence. And right winger Sebastian Villa has already done enough with Boca Juniors to suggest that he could be a real asset to the Colombian attack.
And so, in years to come, as the story of the 2022 World Cup is written, some of the narratives could be set in motion by the action that takes place between this Thursday and next Tuesday.