Football Shaped

Notes and News by Leo Hoenig

The European Game

World Cup 2026 – Day 1.

This one came up on me by surprise. I had seen the draws for the early rounds of African (starts November) and Asian (starts October) and assumed these were the first games in the long lead up to the 2026 World Cup. I then noticed that CONMEBOL had stolen a march on these but opening their fixtures in the September international window.

The South American Confederation has 10 teams, six of which will play in the finals, while one more has a chance via the intercontinental play-offs. This means two more places than in 2022, thanks to the bloating up of the finals to 32 teams. The formula used in South America is still the same as other recent tournaments, all ten teams play each other home and away. The standard double round-robin on league tournaments. For the first series of games, at least, the fixtures are exactly the same as just under three years earlier, when the 2022 qualification process started.

Playing 30 minutes ahead of the next match, the opening game in this World Cup series is therefore Paraguay v Peru. Given the expansion in number of places, this is one of the most interesting ties in this round. Peru were the team that finished fifth last time, and went into the playoffs where they lost a penalty shootout to Australia. A repeat of similar form would see them in the next finals. Paraguay, on the other hand, finished 8th, so would have to improve by one place in order to make the playoffs.

Last time around, this opening game ended in a 2-2 draw. It was played in Acuncion, behind closed doors due to the COVID pandemic. The return game was the final fixture with Peru winning 2-0. This time, it is in Ciudad de Este; the country’s second city. This drew some criticism from Peru coach Juan Reynoso, saying that the pitch was not of the best qualify. His has since apologised and claimed the comments were misreported. Despite some injuries, it appears likely that Peru will field a very experienced team. Paraguay, by contrast, will be full of debutants, or near debutants as many of the team will play their first competitive match for La Albirroja. Not one of the three goalkeepers chosen has played competitively for them before. The trio have three caps between them, with New York Red Bulls’ Carlos Coronel having only just completed the naturalisation process to become eligible. He was born in Brazil, but with a Paraguayan mother. Up to eight players could make their debut this week, but there is some experience, particularly the captain, Gustavo Gomez and Newcastle United’s Miguel Almiron.

Historically, Paraguay have entered into every World Cup, except the 1934 and 1938 editions, which were short on South American entrants. They played in the finals on 8 occasions, with their best run coming in South Africa 2010, when they lost in the quarter-finals to eventual champions, Spain. In the Copa America, they have won two titles, (1953 and 1979), while reaching the quarter-finals of the last two tournaments. Peru also played in the first World Cup, but have only made it to the finals four times since. The most recent was 2018 when they won the intercontinental playoff, but managed just one win from three games in the group stage in Russia, and retired from the fray after the group stage. Like Paraguay, they have won the Copa America twice (1939 and 1975), but have a better recent record, beaten semi-finalists last time and beaten finalists two years earlier. On both occasions, they were beaten by Brazil.

Their most infamous international excursion was to the 1936 Olympics, where they appear to have been cheated out of a semi-final place. They should not have been there at all, to be honest – with only one South American team due to travel to Berlin for a 16 country, straight knock out competition. In qualifying, they finished third behind Uruguay and Argentina – but neither wanted to travel to Germany (for economic reasons). So Peru were the South American representative. Eleven of the 16 were European, including a “Great Britain” team.

In the first round, Peru had no problems, with “Lolo” Fernandez scoring five as the blew away Finland by 7-3. In the quarter-finals, favourites Austria were 2-0 up at half time, only to see Peru score two later goals to take the game to extra time. The Norwegian referee then disallowed three goals in extra time, before two were scored and counted, in the 117th and 119th minutes. Austria protested that their players had been assaulted by Peruvian fans invading the pitch. The appeal was held with no Peruvian representation, as the delegation were held up by a Nazi parade and the Olympic committee and FIFA ordered a replay. (Naturally, in no way influenced by the Nazi hosts). Peru were not allowed to appeal this, and withdrew – leaving Austria to play Poland in the semi-final (3-1 to Austria) and Italy in the final (2-1 to Italy).

The second round of games will take place within a few days. (In all, the clubs play six rounds in the autumn international windows). Paraguay will travel to Venezuela while Peru are at home to Brazil.

Other games in the opening round, see last time’s qualifiers Brazil at home to Bolivia, and Uruguay at home to Chile. Argentina and Ecuador meet in Buenos Aires. Colombia and Venezuela start against each other. Ecuador start the competition on -3 points as a result of the Byron Castillo fiasco. Ecuador had used false documents to claim Castillo was born in Ecuador, when it is more likely that he was born in Colombia. FIFA had investigated this more than once and found that he was Ecuadorian each time. Then the Spanish Sports paper Marca found evidence that not only was he born in Colombia, but that the Ecuador FA knew this. Once again, FIFA rules in favour of the player and Ecuador. Chile, which wanted the World Cup place took this to the Court for Arbitration in Sport. The CAS accepted that false papers had been used – but then said that nationality was based on national law for players who had never played for another country. Ecuadorian law had accepted Castillo as Ecuadorian, and so that is what he was. FIFA then decided to fine Ecuador 100,000 CHF, and deduct three points for the use of false documents.