By Mauricio Savarese, AP
SAO PAULO — A resurgent Brazil squad under new management became the first team to qualify for the World Cup on Tuesday, the same day archrival Argentina heightened its risk of missing a spot at Russia 2018.
The five-time World Cup champions had a 3-0 victory over seventh-place Paraguay in Sao Paulo, moving to 33 points from 14 matches in South American qualifying. The Brazilians secured a direct spot for Russia 2018 after third-place Uruguay lost 2-1 to Peru in Lima.
Argentina, playing without suspended star Lionel Messi, lost 2-0 to Bolivia in the altitude of La Paz earlier and slipped from third to fifth with four matches remaining.
The top four in South America earn direct places at the World Cup. The fifth-ranked South American team goes into a playoff against a team from Oceania for a spot in Russia.
Argentina has 22 points from six wins and four draws, putting coach Edgardo Bauza under intense pressure to step aside.
While Argentina struggled, Colombia had a 2-0 win at Ecuador, posting its first win in Quito in 20 years and ended the day in second spot in qualifying with 24 points. Also on Tuesday Copa America champion Chile beat last-place Venezuela 3-1 in Santiago and climbed back to fourth spot with 23 points.
Bolivia 2, Argentina 0 Argentina’s best chance of qualifying for the next World Cup seemingly relies on winning an appeal to have Messi’s suspension shortened. The Barcelona star made offensive remarks to a Brazilian linesman in the 1-0 victory against Chile last Thursday and, if the FIFA ruling prevails, will only return to the team in their last match for qualifiers in October against Ecuador.
From a TV set in the locker room, Messi saw Argentina little by little fade into an average side outrun by the Bolivians at the 3,600 meters of altitude. Of the five defenders Bauza wanted to field against the ninth-place Bolivians, only left-winger Marcos Rojo was available. Still, the Argentinians seemed to be handling the Bolivians, creating the best opportunities in the first 30 minutes. But then striker Juan Arce headed home a cross from Pablo Escobar in the 32nd minute to open the scoring for the hosts.
Argentina started losing condition at altitude and Bolivia capitalized via striker Marcelo Moreno, who fired home from close range after a cross from Flores to make it 2-0 in the 52nd.
“We are alive and we want to qualify for the World Cup. This is a fight that we will keep fighting,” Bauza told a post-match news conference. The coach also said “it is strange” that Messi’s ban was decided so quickly. “It is regrettable that he could not play, but even more so that there was no time for me to work with someone else,” Bauza said. “I am a little surprised with the time they gave me to make the change.”