Argentina on Tuesday took the final step towards sealing qualification for the Qatar 2022 World Cup with a goalless draw against Brazil, as the Albiceleste’s year to remember drew to a close.
The national team, with 29 points in the group, six behind their neighbours who lead the group, secured at least the fourth direct berth in the notoriously difficult South American qualifying group with 12 points still available.
A combination of results, including Chile's 2-0 loss to Ecuador, helped accomplish the task. Argentina are also awaiting FIFA’s decision regarding the match with Brazil last July, which was suspended after Brazilian health officials entered the pitch in São Paulo.
For the Albiceleste, who were crowned 2021 Copa América champions, qualification caps off "a magnificent, dream year," said coach Lionel Scaloni, the architect of Argentina’s turnaround.
Though celebrations were dampened by the lacklustre and uneven scoreless draw with Brazil, the crowd of around 25,000 in San Juan that watched the match gave the team a standing ovation nevertheless, recognising that the national side has given supporters a year to remember.
Argentina have sealed qualification with an unbeaten record so far, registering eight wins and five draws – a far cry from previous qualifying campaigns that have normally featured an upset or two.
Now, with their ticket to Qatar assured, the side’s upcoming matches, while still competitive, can be enjoyed. Lionel Messi and company will face Chile in Santiago in January, with fixtures to follow against Colombia, Venezuela and Ecuador.
The remaining matches will be an opportunity for Argentina to polish their performances, try out new options and perhaps grant some players a much-needed rest.
Tuesday’s match against Brazil, which saw Argentina’s best players tightly marked and the side facing difficulties in breaking through Brazil’s back line, has underlined the need for more work ahead of the finals in Qatar.
"We couldn't win, but it's also important not to lose. We're still growing," said national team captain Messi, summing up the match.
At the end of an unforgettable year for Argentina – one in which they snatched the Copa América from Brazil in the Maracaná against their biggest rivals after a 28-year drought, qualification is the perfect finishing touch.
Larger challenges now lie ahead and Scaloni will have to continue progressing his team forward, while reducing the side’s dependence on magic Messi.
As the captain said himself after the draw in San Juan on Tuesday: "Now there will be difficult times ahead and we have to be ready."
South American football's governing authorities on Wednesday suspended two Uruguayan referees for missing a blatant elbow strike during the Argentina-Brazil clash the night before in a World Cup qualifier.
On 33 minutes, Argentina defender Nicolás Otamendi caught Brazil winger Raphinha in the face with a swinging elbow as he tried to shield the ball. Raphinha was left with a bleeding mouth and some reports said he needed five stitches at half-time.
But referee Andrés Cunha did not sanction the incident, nor did VAR official Daniel Ostojich bring his attention to it.
CONMEBOL’s refereeing commission said the pair "made serious and manifest errors in the exercise of their duties."
The commission said Otamendi was guilty of "endangering the physical integrity" of Raphinha with his swinging "arm to the face."
Qatar 2022 World Cup: The qualifiers so far
Teams qualified so far for the 32-nation World Cup in Qatar (November 18-December 18, 2022):
Qatar (as hosts)