All South American qualifiers for the next World Cup should be played in Spain and Portugal to get around coronavirus restrictions at home, it's been claimed.
Analysts are warning that following this month’s double cancellation of fixtures by CONMEBOL any further disruption would mean the schedule may not be completed in time for next year’s tournament in Qatar.
With no end in sight to the pandemic in South America it’s believed that moving the large number of remaining matches to Europe is the best way of ensuring everything is finished.
Under such a plan the most likely countries to host the matches would be Spain and Portugal due to the large number of CONMEBOL players based with clubs there as well as cultural ties.
Kick-off times would have to be delayed until 10pm to tie in as much as possible with TV audiences in South America.
But it would mean countries could be sure of calling upon the services of their best players, including Lionel Messi and Luis Suárez from La Liga, Neymar from La Ligue as well as Sergio Agüero and Roberto Firmino from the Premier League.
There are currently widespread travel restrictions between Europe and South America, with many European-based players facing quarantine on their return if they go.
Brazil alone has recorded 270,000 deaths, the second worst in the world after the United States, and its healthcare system is buckling under the pressure of a new variant strain.
It led to CONMEBOL scrapping this month’s qualification matches after many clubs took up FIFA’s offer of allowing clubs to refuse to release players if they had to self-isolate on return.
The South American confederation’s 10 countries have one of the most gruelling qualification processes, an 18-game – or nine round – marathon that is fought out for four automatic qualifying places. With just two rounds already completed that leaves seven rounds – or 14 matches – still to go
As it stands, the qualification process cannot be completed until June 2022, five months before the World Cup kicks off in November, and with a fifth place intercontinental play-off still needing to take place.
The current plan for matches in South America involves two rounds in June before the Copa América tournament kicks off, and two more in each of September, October and November 2021 as well as January, March and June 2022.
With clubs already regularly criss-crossing Europe to compete in the Champions League and Europa League, it’s thought that the qualification process stands a better chance of being finished here than in South America.
One well-placed football insider said: ‘’CONMEBOL are going to run into problems if they pretend they can just follow the same format.
“They need to move the matches to Portugal and Spain to avoid any further cancellations.
“Right now, with no further cancellations, they will finish in June 2022. But because this is an evolving situation and we face new phenomenon every week and month, FIFA and CONMEBOL need to minimise their risks.
“Even if those qualifiers in CONMEBOL do go ahead in the future, I can see European clubs refusing to release their players as they have been granted the rights to do so due to Covid-19 concerns.”
With any future games in South America likely to be played behind closed doors it’s claimed there is no loss of home advantage by moving to a different continent.
One country that might complain is Bolivia which benefits from its La Paz stadium being 3200 metres above sea level and its players accustomed to playing at high altitudes.
Brazil famously lost 2-0 there during a qualifier for the 1998 World Cup after the team needed oxygen masks at half-time.
Following the suspension of this month’s ‘double date’ matches CONMEBOL said: “FIFA will analyse the rescheduling of the date, in coordination with CONMEBOL and the member associations. "Soon, the different options for holding the matches will be studied.”
Moving matches from South America to Europe is not without precedent; in December 2018 Spain hosted the final of South America’s top club competition, Copa Libertadores, after violence marred the staging of the first leg between River Plate and Boca Juniors. The final’s second leg was moved to Madrid.