By Michael Place
RIO DE JANEIRO, Oct. 7 (Xinhua) -- The South American Football Confederation (CONMEBOL) is widely regarded as having the world's most gruelling World Cup qualifying tournament.
During the 18-round campaign, teams face lung-busting altitude, scorching tropical heat, long-haul flights between many cities and passionate fans that make stadiums such as Argentina's La Bombonera or Brazil's Maracana among the world's most inhospitable venues for opponents.
In addition, the quality of the 10 member teams means there are no easy games for anyone; the region boasts four national sides in FIFA's current top 10 and seven in the top 25.
Xinhua looks at some of the major talking points ahead of Thursday's opening day of fixtures in CONMEBOL's road to Qatar 2022.
1. Lionel Messi on a mission
Barcelona talisman Lionel Messi has been unfairly maligned by some for a perceived inability to reproduce his club form for Argentina. But the 33-year-old's record for his country stands tall against the greats of any era. Messi is his country's all-time leading scorer with 70 goals and 45 assists from 138 appearances.
However, the six-time Ballon d'Or winner has not been able to win a major trophy at international level; a gold medal at the Beijing 2008 Olympics notwithstanding. The 2022 World Cup in Qatar might be his last chance to change that.
One suspects that Messi, who will be 35 when the next edition of football's showpiece tournament begins, will be a man on a mission during these qualifiers as he seeks to enhance his own legacy and end Argentina's nearly three-decade wait for major silverware.
2. Neymar has Ronaldo, Pele in his sights
On the subject of individual statistics, Neymar is on the cusp of overtaking Ronaldo as Brazil's second-highest scorer, and he has the legendary Pele in his sights.
The Paris Saint-Germain forward has 61 goals in 101 appearances for the Selecao, just one behind Ronaldo and 16 shy of record holder Pele.
It would take a Herculean effort for Neymar to usurp Pele's tally during the qualifying tournament. However, such a prolific scoring run is not beyond the 28 year-old, who has netted three hat-tricks and eight braces for his country since making his international debut in 2010.
3. Tabarez stands the test of time
They call him El Maestro, and for good reason. Oscar Tabarez, a former school teacher, has been a coach, educator, mentor, strategist and father figure to generations of Uruguayan players since taking charge of the national team for the first time in 1988.
His initial spell at the helm ended after the 1990 World Cup, however, Tabarez returned in 2006 and immediately turned the team's fortunes around.
Having qualified for only one of the previous four World Cups, Uruguay reached the semifinals of the 2010 tournament in South Africa and also made it to the knockout stages of both the 2014 and 2018 editions.
If Uruguay qualify for Qatar, Tabarez will be the first manager to take the same national team to five World Cups. He will also set a record as the oldest World Cup manager - he will be 75 when the tournament starts - surpassing Otto Rehhagel, who was 71 when he led Greece during the 2010 edition in South Africa.
4. Peru: Key names missing
Peru will be without several key players for their opening fixtures against Paraguay and Brazil. The biggest absence will be that of their captain and record scorer Paolo Guerrero, who has been ruled out for the rest of 2020 because of a ruptured anterior cruciate ligament.
Also missing will be injured left-back Nilson Loyola and influential winger Edison Flores, whose club DC United refused to release him because of a mandatory 14-day self-quarantine for those returning to the United States capital from abroad. In addition, forward Jefferson Farfan is in doubt for the matches after re-injuring his troublesome left knee.
Peru head coach Ricardo Gareca has insisted he won't use the team's weakened squad as an excuse for any poor performances.
"We are an experienced team and know that we can do well without very important players," Gareca told reporters. "We have to be mentally prepared and make sure we are focused from the very first minute of the first match."
The Blanquirroja are aiming to qualify for their second consecutive World Cup, having ended a 36-year drought to earn a place at the 2018 tournament in Russia.
5. Colombia: The old and the new
Everton playmaker James Rodriguez and Galatasaray striker Radamel Falcao will return to the international fold for Colombia's qualifiers against Venezuela and Chile.
The pair have not played for their country since the Cafeteros' penalty shootout defeat to Chile in the quarterfinals of last year's Copa America in Brazil.
Falcao, 34, has found his scoring touch for Galatasaray this season with three goals from the opening four rounds of the Turkish Super Lig.
James, 29, has also netted three times in his first four matches for Everton in the Premier League following his summer move from Real Madrid.
Despite the return of the veteran duo, Colombia's squad also features a number of fresh faces, including uncapped Hertha Berlin striker John Cordoba and America de Cali goalkeeper Eder Chaux.
6. Bolivia: Not just high altitude experts?
Bolivia head coach Cesar Farias says he wants to dispel the notion that Bolivia are only competitive at their Hernando Siles stadium in La Paz, more than 3,600 meters above sea level.
"We want to play good football, whether it be at sea level, at high altitude, on the road, or at home," Farias said ahead of Bolivia's opening qualifier against Brazil in Sao Paulo on Friday.
"That's our aim and I'm confident we can compete with the footballers we have," he added, despite the refusal of several clubs to release their players for national duties.
Bolivia have not qualified for the World Cup since 1994, when they were eliminated in the group stage in the United States. Their only other appearances in the competition came in 1930 and 1950.