Photo credit: Quinn Rooney/Getty

For most of the world’s elite national teams, qualifying for the World Cup is a charade. Sure, Spain and Germany and the other powerhouses have to earn their places into the world’s biggest sporting event, but because those countries are so reliably great, they can generally nab their spot without their fans ever entering panic mode. It takes a truly historic downslide to mess things up. (Yes, we’re looking at you, Holland.)

It’s mostly for the good of the main event that the great teams don’t have much trouble qualifying for the World Cup, but there is a side-effect to this: outside of watching your preferred national team find itself and its best XI, World Cup qualifying in general doesn’t make for the most compelling television. It is too predictable, with too many bad teams getting smashed up by the good teams, and too many second chances for any one match to feel important.

Except for in South America, that is. In an absolute cutthroat soccer continent with just 10 teams competing for four slots (plus a trip to the play-in round), World Cup qualifying down there is absolutely wild. Within the 10 teams that make up CONMEBOL, there are six countries ranked in the top 14 of international soccer, by ELO. If you’re doing the math, this format means one of the top 14 soccer countries in the world will necessarily miss the World Cup, and that doesn’t even account for the threats of the other four teams, the worst of which ranks 40th.

For comparison, CONCACAF’s six-team Hex round has zero countries in that top 14, with half the competitors ranking below the very worst CONMEBOL squad. Europe, meanwhile, has plenty of giants but features a glut of 54 total teams all playing together in largely diluted groups that favor the World Cup regulars.

In its current form, CONMEBOL qualification is unforgiving, grueling, a little unfair (it should be noted that, as riveting as it may be, ideally World Cup spots would be allocated more fairly so that a top 14 country wouldn’t get ousted before the tournament even starts), but absolutely thrilling. Qualifying in CONMEBOL is like its own intensely competitive domestic league, with an 18-game, true Round Robin campaign packed with rivalries and superstars and screaming fans in nearly every single match. Like all the other continents, CONMEBOL teams only have two games remaining before the qualifiers are decided. Unlike the other continents, however, there’s still plenty of drama left to unfold for the world’s best teams.

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The only South American team to clinch a World Cup berth so far is Brazil’s, who are on the comeback trail after a couple of disappointing Copa América exits in recent years. After dropping their very first game to Chile, Brazil have steamrolled through the competition, putting together an undefeated stretch filled with emphatic wins, most notably a vintage 3-0 drubbing of Argentina back in November.

After Brazil, things get intense. A mere seven points separate seven teams. Uruguay’s place in second in the table seems pretty secure, while Paraguay, in seventh, has a lot of work to do. Take away those two, and you have Colombia, Peru, Argentina, and Chile, all within just three points of each other, competing for essentially 2.5 spots for Russia next summer.

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Peru are the ones here with the most to gain and also the toughest road ahead, as their final two matches are against Argentina and Colombia. Without any household names on the roster and with no World Cup appearances since 1982, they’re the only one of these four that won’t be familiar with the modern final. Contrary to what you’d typically expect of an underdog, however, Peru win by scoring—generally with a mix of contributors but most often with the young winger Edison Flores, who’s barely able to make an impact with his club in Denmark but somehow keeps finding the net with his country. The 23-year-old Flores has key goals in each of Peru’s last two games (both 2-1 wins), including this beauty against Bolivia that sparked ecstasy in both the stands and the announcers’ booth.

Favored to overtake Peru are Argentina and Chile, the two teams beneath them and also the Copa América finalists from the past two editions, who have each hit some rough patches on the road to Russia. Chile were thumped 3-0 against Paraguay last week, then lost 1-0 to Bolivia to slip out of a qualifying place. Hypothetically, their talent should be enough to carry them over the line, but with only two games left, the margin for error is nonexistent, and those within the squad seem to be getting tense.

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Argentina, too, are winless in their last three matches, though they still sit in a playoff spot that would place them in a two-leg contest against New Zealand, which presumably would be a formality for a team with Lionel Messi. They’ve been a frustrating, offensively challenged side of late—which is especially curious given their peerless collection of superstar forwards—but at least they still control their own destiny. However, with this World Cup looming as perhaps Lionel Messi’s last chance at international glory, Argentina should be gearing up ahead of a potential World Cup title, not struggling to qualify for the tournament in the first place.

Not to keep belaboring the point, but these are four of the top 14 teams in the world, powered by some of the planet’s very best soccer players, all desperately trying to avoid what would be a crushing failure on a scale we as Americans can’t really fathom. There are neighbors looking to humiliate each other. There are massive underdogs going up against arguably the greatest player of all time. There are teams about to put all their pride on the line in fiercely hostile environments. There are superstars who might be doing this for the last time. I’m not sure that the stakes of a sporting event could get any higher.

The World Cup will be expanding to 48 teams in 2026. While this change will mostly be for the benefit of confederations that feature fewer giants (like CONCACAF, Asia, and Africa), powers like Argentina will still likely never again find their place in the final stage under threat. That in itself isn’t totally a bad thing, but losing out on the only real qualifying competition will still be a shame. After all, one of the chief reasons why South American countries are so great at soccer and so dangerous in World Cups specifically is that they are forced to survive the most ruthless gauntlet in international soccer for the right to even attempt to win some glory on the biggest stage. Nothing prepares you to fight for your life in a World Cup the way fighting for your life to get to the World Cup does.

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As World Cup expansion grants CONMEBOL more places in the final and thus eases the competitive pressures on South American qualifying, these games will lose a lot of their current meaning and thrill. At least for now, though, the journey remains as exhilarating as the destination.