There could be some harsh words from Alexis Sanchez to David Ospina when the pair return to Arsenal after playing for their countries in the final round of World Cup qualification.
On Tuesday Sanchez and Chile went two goals down to Brazil early in the second half. But it was not a cause for desperation because, at around the same time, Colombia took the lead against Peru. If Colombia keeper Ospina could keep a clean sheet, then whatever happened in Sao Paulo, Chile would still have a chance to qualify for Russia. They, and not Peru, would make the play-off spot and take on New Zealand home away – as long as Paraguay did not beat Venezuela at home, where the game was still goalless.
Ospina was in need of a good performance. The previous Thursday Colombia had been two minutes away from automatic qualification, 1-0 up at home to Paraguay with the fans already celebrating. Two late goalkeeping errors handed the Paraguayans a win and sent Colombia back into the dogfight.
But what happened now was even worse. With 15 minutes to go in Lima Peru had a free kick some 25 yards out. It was indirect. Centre-forward Paolo Guerrero stepped up to take it, and curled the ball over the wall and towards the goal. Had it gone straight in the goal would not have stood. But Ospina plunged left in an attempt to make a save, and got a touch on the ball as it went past him and into the back of the net. And with Paraguay failing to win – they conceded a late goal and lost 1-0 – this was the moment where Peru grabbed the play-off spot and Chile were eliminated.
Needing to score twice, Chile poured forward and were caught on the break right at the end to lose 3-0 – and bring the curtain down on a golden era for the country’s national team. Their most victorious generation are ageing together, and with no competitive matches until the Copa America of 2019, the future belongs to a younger group of players.
New Zealand may not prove a pushover, but Peru now have an excellent chance of making it to their first World Cup since 1982. After 18 rounds they have claimed the play-off spot by a narrow margin over the Chileans: the teams finished level on points, but Peru have a goal difference of plus one, while Chile’s is minus one.
There is a delicious irony in this fact. Both of these teams benefited from playing a Bolivia side who fielded an ineligible player. Last year Chile drew 0-0 with Bolivia, who had just beaten Peru 2-0. Both times Bolivia introduced a late substitute, defender Nelson Cabrera. He was born in Paraguay, but after three years residence he qualified as a Bolivian citizen.
FIFA regulations, though, insist on a five-year period of residence before a player can become naturalised. Cabrera, then, was ineligible. Both games were awarded to their opponents by a 3-0 margin. Chile, then, were handed two extra points and three extra goals. Peru received three extra points and five extra goals.
It seems fair enough that Bolivia were punished. There had been no attempt to seek an unfair advantage, but they should have known the rules. But awarding the points to Chile and Peru was more controversial. Had they really suffered an offence sufficiently serious to transform the original results into a 3-0 win? It seemed especially harsh on those teams competing with them for a place in Russia – Uruguay, Colombia, Argentina, Ecuador and Paraguay. There was a real risk that these points awarded at the stroke of a pen would end up altering the qualification table.
And so they have. But not in a way that punishes any of the other teams. Amazingly, the only team that has suffered from the decision is Chile.
Uruguay, Colombia and Argentina all acquired enough points to get over the line. Paraguay and Ecuador did not get enough. Take off the extra points, restore the original results, and there is one significant change in the table. Chile would have finished fifth, and would now be preparing to take on New Zealand.