Chile's appeal to have Ecuador disqualified from the World Cup in Qatar has been rejected by FIFA.

The appeal was made on the basis of Ecuador selecting an ineligible player during their qualifying campaign.

Football's world governing body opened disciplinary proceedings last month following allegations that right-back Byron Castillo is Colombian and not eligible to represent Ecuador.

Castillo made eight appearances for Ecuador in their South American qualifying campaign.

Chile, who failed to qualify for the World Cup, lodged a complaint, but FIFA confirmed on Friday that Ecuador will keep their place at the World Cup, which starts in November.

A statement on FIFA's website read: "The FIFA Disciplinary Committee has rendered its decision in relation to the potential ineligibility of the player Byron David Castillo Segura with regard to his participation in eight qualifying matches of the national team of the Ecuadorian Football Association (FEF) in the preliminary competition of the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022.

"After analysing the submissions of all parties concerned and considering all elements brought before it, the FIFA Disciplinary Committee has decided to close the proceedings initiated against the FEF.

"The Disciplinary Committee's findings were notified today to the parties concerned. In accordance with the relevant provisions of the FIFA Disciplinary Code, the parties have 10 days in which to request a motivated decision, which, if requested, would subsequently be published on legal.fifa.com. The present decision remains subject to an appeal before the FIFA Appeal Committee."

La Roja, who finished seventh to miss out on a play-off spot, would have taken Ecuador's place had FIFA disqualified them. 

Ecuador will face hosts Qatar, Netherlands and Senegal in Group A.

Mexico only managed a scoreless draw, their fourth in 10 matches over 2022, playing out a 0-0 stalemate Ecuador on Sunday.

The draw marked El Tri's 100th Mextour match in the United States, having held home fixtures there since 2002.

In an otherwise uneventful match on the pitch, Tata Martino's side had a late shout for a penalty waved away when Uriel Antuna appeared to have been brought down in the penalty area in 78th minute.

The game faced late controversy when it was momentarily suspended, however, following discriminatory chanting towards Ecuador goalkeeper Alexander Dominguez with each goal-kick.

Ecuador will now host Cape Verde on Saturday, while Mexico commence their CONCACAF Nations League campaign hosting Suriname.

FIFA has opened disciplinary proceedings against Ecuador over the potential use of an ineligible player in their successful World Cup qualifying campaign.

Chile last week asked the world football governing body to investigate allegations that right-back Byron Castillo is actually Colombian and not eligible to represent Ecuador.

Castillo played eight times for Ecuador in South American qualifying, including a goalless draw with Chile in September and a 2-0 victory in November.

La Roja finished seventh, meaning they just missed out on a play-off spot, but believe Ecuador should be expelled from the quadrennial competition.

And FIFA confirmed on Wednesday that it is looking into the recent complaint made by the Federacion de Futbol de Chile.

The statement read: "FIFA has decided to open disciplinary proceedings in relation to Byron David Castillo Segura's possible breach of the call criteria for the indicated matches. 

"In this context, the FEF and the Peruvian Football Federation have been invited to present their positions before the FIFA Disciplinary Committee."

Ecuador have already been drawn in Group A at the World Cup, alongside hosts Qatar, as well as Senegal and the Netherlands.

FIFA sanctioned Bolivia for fielding ineligible player Nelson Cabrera in 2018 World Cup qualifiers against Peru and Chile, awarding their opponents 3-0 wins in both instances.

Chile have demanded FIFA investigate allegations that World Cup qualification rivals Ecuador used an ineligible player during their successful campaign.

A statement from the Federacion de Futbol de Chile outlined their belief that right back Byron Castillo was born in Colombia in 1995, not in Ecuador in 1998, as had previously been thought to be the case.

Castillo made eight appearances for Ecuador in their World Cup qualifying campaign, with La Tri set to take part in the tournament in Qatar at the end of this year.

Ecuador have been drawn in Group A alongside hosts Qatar, as well as Senegal and the Netherlands.

However, Chile released a statement on Thursday detailing their allegations around Castillo and demanding an investigation from FIFA.

La Roja finished seventh in South American World Cup qualifying, just missing out on a play-off spot.

"We inform that, on May 4, through the Carlezzo Abogados studio, we sent to the FIFA Disciplinary Commission a complaint against the player Byron David Castillo Segura and the Ecuadorian Football Federation (FEF), due to the use of false birth certificate, false declaration of age and false nationality by the aforementioned player," the statement read.

"We understand, based on all the information and documents collected, that the facts are too serious and must be thoroughly investigated by FIFA.

"There are innumerable proofs that the player was born in Colombia, in the city of Tumaco, on July 25, 1995, and not on November 10, 1998, in the Ecuadorian city of General Villamil Playas.

"The investigations carried out in Ecuador, including a legal report by the National Directorate of Civil Registry, the highest authority in the matter in this country, declared the existence of inconsistencies in the birth certificate presented by the player, and reported that this document did not exist in its internal files, pointing out other weaknesses in the document, to conclude that it was possibly fraudulent.

"In addition, an investigative commission of the Ecuadorian Football Federation, aimed at clarifying the irregularities existing in the records of players before this federation, concluded that the player was Colombian.

"All that, obviously, was fully known to the FEF. The world of football cannot close its eyes to so many tests. The practice of serious and conscious irregularities in the registration of players cannot be accepted, especially when we talk about a world competition. There must be fair play on and off the pitch."

 

We know most of the teams and now we know the majority of the games after the draw for the 2022 World Cup was made in Doha on Friday.

The full line-up of teams is still to be determined and the locations and times for each fixture are also to be confirmed, but what we do know is that there will be some extremely intriguing matches in the group stage in November when proceedings get under way in Qatar.

Tournament debutants, check. Cinderella stories, check. A mouth-watering clash between European heavyweights, check. A game to make England fans extremely anxious, oh you better believe that's a check.

Yes, this is a group stage that appears to have everything and, while there is plenty of time for opinions of these teams to change, here Stats Perform takes you through a look at some of the best games delivered by this year's draw.

Qatar v Ecuador (November 21)

Over 8,000 miles separate Doha and Quito, but both cities figure to be transfixed by the World Cup opener, in which the hosts will make their debut.

Qatar have been dealt a difficult hand in Group A, having also been pitted against three-time finalists the Netherlands and African champions Senegal.

First up, though, is a meeting with an Ecuador side that came through the arduous challenge of CONMEBOL qualifying with 27 goals to their name, their highest tally in a single edition.

Qatar do have recent tournament pedigree, however, impressively beating Japan 3-1 in the final of the 2019 Asian Cup, with the goal they conceded the only time their net was breached in the entire tournament.

Yet their performance in the Asian Cup that same year did not inspire much confidence in them beating a South American nation. Qatar were knocked out in the group stage with just one point to their name when they appeared in the Copa America.

Belgium v Canada (November 23)

Canada face a challenging start to their first World Cup finals appearance since 1986, a duel with the side second behind Brazil in the FIFA world rankings their immediate reward for a dream run through CONCACAF qualifying.

Belgium should not lack motivation, with Qatar realistically marking the last chance for their 'golden generation' to win a major tournament. Their performance in the group stage across the last 28 years suggests a shock here is unlikely. Since losing 1-0 to Saudi Arabia in 1994, the Red Devils are unbeaten in 12 group stage matches.

But Canada can afford to be full of belief following a remarkable qualifying run in which they scored 23 goals and conceded just seven in the final round.

Regardless of how they perform, English coach John Herdman will make history, as he is set to become the first person to manage in both the men's and women's World Cup.

England v United States (November 25)

Everybody loves a trilogy. Unless you're Rob Green. England and the United States have met twice in the World Cup, and the Three Lions have not won either of those games.

There was a famous defeat to the USA as England crashed out in the group stage in their first appearance in the finals in 1950.

Acquaintances were renewed 60 years later, with the USA claiming a point after Green spilled Clint Dempsey's long-range effort to cancel out Steven Gerrard's early opener.

England, having lost the Euro 2020 final on penalties to Italy and gone unbeaten in 22 matches – conceding only three goals in qualifying – will be the heavy favourites once again. However, a USA side that boasts the likes of Christian Pulisic, Giovanni Reyna, Sergino Dest and Weston McKennie have the talent in their ranks to spring a surprise.

Argentina v Mexico (November 26)

Lionel Messi and La Albiceleste will have a couple of tricky hurdles to negotiate in the group stage, this meeting with El Tri coming before a Group C finale against Robert Lewandowski and Poland.

Mexico boast a superb record when it comes to getting through the group stage, having done so in each of their last eight appearances at the finals.

Facing the prolific talents of Lewandowski and Messi, this is a group that threatens to put that streak in jeopardy.

The Mexico defence kept eight clean sheets in CONCACAF qualifying, and such resolute play at the back will likely be needed for them to defy Messi and Co.

That task has frequently proven beyond Mexico, who have lost each of their three World Cup meetings with Argentina.

Hoping to mastermind a shock will be a face familiar to Messi and his team-mates, with former Barcelona and Argentina coach Gerardo 'Tata' Martino set to lead Mexico into a game against his home country.

Spain vs Germany (November 27)

This is comfortably the headline act as two of the previous three World Cup winners square off knowing victory could be crucial, with the side that finishes second in Group E potentially set to face Belgium, presuming they win Group F as most would expect, in the last 16.

Germany will hope the early signs of progress under Hansi Flick are realised in Qatar, having gone unbeaten in each of their nine games (including friendlies) since he took over from Joachim Low.

Die Mannschaft have conceded just three goals in that run, but a meeting with a Spain side that reached the semi-finals of Euro 2020 and is filled with emerging young talent promises to be difficult in the extreme.

La Roja reached the final of the UEFA Nations League, which they lost 2-1 to France, with that defeat and a qualifying loss to Sweden the only blips for Luis Enrique's side since their shoot-out agony at the hands of Italy.

Germany and Spain have met four times in the World Cup finals, with the former prevailing in 1966 and 1982. They played out a draw in the group stage in 1994, but Spain claimed a 1-0 victory in 2010 en route to winning the trophy for the first time in their history. Flick was an assistant to Low on Germany's coaching staff during that tournament.

Ghana v Uruguay (December 2)

The appetite for revenge will be high among fans of the Black Stars, who get another crack at Luis Suarez's Uruguay over 12 years on from their controversial 2010 exit at the quarter-final stage.

Suarez gladly took on the role of villain in a remarkable end to extra time in that match, committing a deliberate handball to prevent Dominic Adiyiah's header from giving Ghana a 2-1 lead late into the additional half hour.

The then-Ajax striker was sent off, but Asamoah Gyan skied the subsequent penalty, with Suarez seen enthusiastically celebrating the miss in the tunnel.

Uruguay then held their nerve to prevail in the shoot-out and prevent Ghana from becoming the first African team to reach the semi-finals.

Now, in a group that also features Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal and Son Heung-min and South Korea, Ghana could have the chance to send Uruguay home early in the final round of group stage fixtures.

This one promises to be tasty.

Qatar 2022 is fast approaching and the anticipation will surely be at its most intense so far when Friday's draw for the group stage is completed.

The Doha Exhibition and Convention Center plays host to the milestone event, which will see eight groups drawn from pots as the eventual storylines of the World Cup begin to unfurl.

Among the narratives that will start being mapped out on Friday is France's title defence, with Les Bleus hoping to become the first team since Brazil in 1962 to successfully defend their World Cup crown.

Ahead of the draw, Stats Perform provides a lowdown of all the key information…

 

How will the draw work?

Most of us have seen a draw and understand the general premise, but there's a lot of detail to consider before we end up with our completed group stage.

For starters, the draw (19:00 local time) will only include 29 qualified teams, with the other three spots to consist of a couple of intercontinental play-off slot placeholders and one UEFA play-off slot placeholder, with those nations to be determined later in the year.

The qualified teams will be sorted into four pots of eight, with their FIFA world ranking determining which they enter – joining Qatar in pot one will be the top seven teams, while the nations ranked eight-15 will be in pot 2, and so on. The three play-off slot placeholders will be drawn from pot four.

There will also be eight pots representing the groups, A to H. Each group pot contains four balls with position numbers, ranging from one to four, which correspond to the teams' respective starting position in the tables and subsequently impact their fixture schedule.

Team pot one will be the first to empty, with Qatar automatically drawn into slot A1. The other sides from pot one will go straight into position one of the remaining groups.

From then on, a ball is drawn from a team pot and followed by one from a group pot, determining that team's position – for example, the second nation drawn into Group A could be placed in slot A4. The process continues until each team pot is emptied, with pot four the last to be drawn.

Where possible, no group will contain more than one team from the same qualification zone, with the exception of Europe – so anyone hoping for an encounter like Brazil v Uruguay will have to wait for the knockout stage.

Thursday's release of the latest world rankings confirmed the make-up of the respective pots, so, without any further ado, let's take a look through them…

The Pots

Pot One:

Qatar (hosts)
Brazil
Belgium
France
Argentina
England
Spain
Portugal

 

Pot Two:

Denmark
Netherlands
Germany
Mexico 
USA
Switzerland
Croatia
Uruguay

Pot Three:

Senegal
Iran
Japan
Morocco
Serbia
Poland
South Korea
Tunisia

 

Pot Four:

Cameroon
Canada
Ecuador
Saudi Arabia
Ghana
Intercontinental play-off placeholder 1 
Intercontinental play-off placeholder 2
UEFA play-off placeholder

Luck of the draw!

It goes without saying that, theoretically, being in pot one means you would be favourites to win your group. But that's the beauty of football; practically anything can happen once you're on the pitch.

If we look back to the last World Cup four years ago, defending champions Germany were top of the FIFA rankings and in pot one, but then failed to get through the group stage for the first time ever.

 

But just as being in a higher pot is no guarantee of going deep into the tournament, who's to say how eventual 2018 champions France would have fared had they been in pot two?

Les Bleus were ranked seventh at the time so squeezed into pot one ahead of Spain. While that arguably gave them a trickier route to the final in the knockout phase, perhaps the tests posed by Argentina, Uruguay and Belgium were what kept them sharp all the way to the end?

This time around, Spain do appear in pot one. Portugal do as well, with Fernando Santos' men benefiting in that regard from European champions Italy's shock absence.

Nevertheless, there are some powerful teams in pot two. The Netherlands and Germany are undoubtedly the pick of the bunch there, both of whom will provide a stern test for any of the teams in pot one. Brazil v Die Mannschaft in the group stage, anyone?

There's a chance we could even see a repeat of the 2018 final in the group stage, with Croatia (pot two) able to come up against France in the opening round, while an England v United States showdown would surely capture the imagination of fans on both sides of 'the pond'.

We can expect to see plenty of quality in pot three as well, especially with Serbia, Robert Lewandowski's Poland and African champions Senegal present.

Among those in pot four are Canada. They may only be competing in their second World Cup and first since 1986, but John Herdman's team have won plenty of admirers en route to winning the CONCACAF qualifying section ahead of Mexico and reaching a record high of 33rd in the rankings.

 

Excitement, expectations and exoduses as Ronaldo and Messi look likely to bow out

Whether watching football on TV or from the stands, it can often be easy to forget that our heroes are just ordinary people as well. They are individuals who in all likelihood had the same hopes and dreams as many of us as children.

The glitz and glamour surrounding professional football can lead us to put footballers on a pedestal, but behind the sport's shiny facade, our teams are made up of – and coached by – people who are just as obsessed with the idea of the World Cup as anyone else.

England manager Gareth Southgate encapsulated the excitement earlier this week, as he said: "[The World Cup evokes] a different sort of feeling, but it's still a tournament we all watched as kids, we all filled our wallcharts out, we all hoped and followed when England were there that we would do well. And it's a unique chance to make history, so that of course is massively exciting."

Of course, that innocent excitement harbours expectation and hope for many, for others there will be a feeling of responsibility to amend the wrongs of the past.

This time around, that's arguably truest when looking at Germany, with Manuel Neuer fully appreciating he may not get another opportunity to put things right.

"I know that I will probably not get to play many more World Cups, so after crashing out in 2018 in Russia and our exit against England [at Euro 2020], it's important that we show a new version of ourselves and visualise success," the experienced goalkeeper said.

That finality Neuer alluded to is another key aspect of the World Cup. Given the four-year cycle of the tournament, every time we bid a fond farewell to a few greats of the game who opt to take advantage of the cyclical nature and end their international careers.

 

This time it looks as though Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo – who for so long battled out their own personal 'Greatest of All-Time' rivalry – may be among those appearing on the World Cup stage for the last time.

"Goal achieved, we're at the Qatar World Cup. We're in our rightful place!" Ronaldo's Instagram post after Portugal's play-off success focused on the positive, but at 37, Qatar 2022 will surely be his final appearance at the tournament.

As for Messi, he said last week: "I don't know, the truth is I don't know. Let's hope [Argentina's preparations] go the best way possible. But for sure after the World Cup many things will change."

Exoduses after major international tournaments are common as teams reset or rebuild, but given what Messi and Ronaldo have represented on the pitch and the fact they've appeared at each of the previous four World Cups, their appearances at Qatar 2022 need to be savoured.

It all begins with Friday's draw, when narratives and talking points that'll live longer than any of us will start to take shape with the unscrewing of a few shiny plastic balls.

It's nearly four years since Didier Deschamps became only the third man to win the World Cup as a player and coach, as he guided France to their second success on football's grandest stage.

The target now for Les Bleus is to become the first nation since Brazil in 1962 to retain their crown, and that journey begins on Friday with the draw for the group stage of Qatar 2022.

Four years is a long time to wait for anything, but the draw for the World Cup is always a milestone event that sees the anticipation taken up a notch.

The eyes of the football world will be on the Doha Exhibition and Convention Center, where the eight groups will be drawn and potential routes to December's finale can start being plotted.

But there is a little more to the draw than that…

 

How will the draw work?

Most of us have seen a draw and understand the general premise, but there's a lot of detail to consider before we end up with our completed group stage.

For starters, Friday's draw (19:00 local time) will only include 29 qualified teams, with the other three spots to consist of a couple of intercontinental play-off slot placeholders and one UEFA play-off slot placeholder, with those nations to be determined later in the year.

The qualified teams will be sorted into four pots of eight, with their FIFA world ranking determining which they enter – joining Qatar in pot one will be the top seven teams, while the nations ranked eight-15 will be in pot 2, and so on. The three play-off slot placeholders will be drawn from pot four.

There will also be eight pots representing the groups, A to H. Each group pot contains four balls with position numbers, ranging from one to four, which correspond to the teams' respective starting position in the tables and subsequently impact their fixture schedule.

Team pot one will be the first to empty, with Qatar automatically drawn into slot A1. The other sides from pot one will go straight into position one of the remaining groups.

From then on, a ball is drawn from a team pot and followed by one from a group pot, determining that team's position – for example, the second nation drawn into Group A could be placed in slot A4. The process continues until each team pot is emptied, with pot four the last to be drawn.

Where possible, no group will contain more than one team from the same qualification zone, with the exception of Europe – so anyone hoping for an encounter like Brazil v Uruguay will have to wait for the knockout stage.

Thursday's release of the latest world rankings confirmed the make-up of the respective pots, so, without any further ado, let's take a look through them…

The Pots

Pot One:

Qatar (hosts)
Brazil
Belgium
France
Argentina
England
Spain
Portugal

 

Pot Two:

Denmark
Netherlands
Germany
Mexico 
USA
Switzerland
Croatia
Uruguay

Pot Three:

Senegal
Iran
Japan
Morocco
Serbia
Poland
South Korea
Tunisia

 

Pot Four:

Cameroon
Canada
Ecuador
Saudi Arabia
Ghana
Intercontinental play-off placeholder 1 
Intercontinental play-off placeholder 2
UEFA play-off placeholder

Luck of the draw!

It goes without saying that, theoretically, being in pot one means you would be favourites to win your group. But that's the beauty of football; practically anything can happen once you're on the pitch.

If we look back to the last World Cup four years ago, defending champions Germany were top of the FIFA rankings and in pot one, but then failed to get through the group stage for the first time ever.

 

But just as being in a higher pot is no guarantee of going deep into the tournament, who's to say how eventual 2018 champions France would have fared had they been in pot two?

Les Bleus were ranked seventh at the time so squeezed into pot one ahead of Spain. While that arguably gave them a trickier route to the final in the knockout phase, perhaps the tests posed by Argentina, Uruguay and Belgium were what kept them sharp all the way to the end?

This time around, Spain do appear in pot one. Portugal do as well, with Fernando Santos' men benefiting in that regard from European champions Italy's shock absence.

Nevertheless, there are some powerful teams in pot two. The Netherlands and Germany are undoubtedly the pick of the bunch there, both of whom will provide a stern test for any of the teams in pot one. Brazil v Die Mannschaft in the group stage, anyone?

There's a chance we could even see a repeat of the 2018 final in the group stage, with Croatia (pot two) able to come up against France in the opening round, while an England v United States showdown would surely capture the imagination of fans on both sides of 'the pond'.

We can expect to see plenty of quality in pot three as well, especially with Serbia, Robert Lewandowski's Poland and African champions Senegal present.

Among those in pot four are Canada. They may only be competing in their second World Cup and first since 1986, but John Herdman's team have won plenty of admirers en route to winning the CONCACAF qualifying section and reaching a record high of 33rd in the rankings.

 

Excitement, expectations and exoduses as Ronaldo and Messi look likely to bow out

Whether watching football on TV or from the stands, it can often be easy to forget that our heroes are just ordinary people as well. They are individuals who in all likelihood had the same hopes and dreams as many of us as children.

The glitz and glamour surrounding professional football can lead us to put footballers on a pedestal, but behind the sport's shiny facade, our teams are made up of – and coached by – people who are just as obsessed with the idea of the World Cup as anyone else.

England manager Gareth Southgate encapsulated the excitement earlier this week, as he said: "[The World Cup evokes] a different sort of feeling, but it's still a tournament we all watched as kids, we all filled our wallcharts out, we all hoped and followed when England were there that we would do well. And it's a unique chance to make history, so that of course is massively exciting."

Of course, that innocent excitement harbours expectation and hope for many, for others there will be a feeling of responsibility to amend the wrongs of the past.

This time around, that's arguably truest when looking at Germany, with Manuel Neuer fully appreciating he may not get another opportunity to put things right.

"I know that I will probably not get to play many more World Cups, so after crashing out in 2018 in Russia and our exit against England [at Euro 2020], it's important that we show a new version of ourselves and visualise success," the experienced goalkeeper said.

That finality Neuer alluded to is another key aspect of the World Cup. Given the four-year cycle of the tournament, every time we bid a fond farewell to a few greats of the game who opt to take advantage of the cyclical nature and end their international careers.

 

This time it looks as though Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo – who for so long battled out their own personal 'Greatest of All-Time' rivalry – may be among those appearing on the World Cup stage for the last time.

"Goal achieved, we're at the Qatar World Cup. We're in our rightful place!" Ronaldo's Instagram post after Portugal's play-off success focused on the positive, but at 37, Qatar 2022 will surely be his final appearance at the tournament.

As for Messi, he said last week: "I don't know, the truth is I don't know. Let's hope [Argentina's preparations] go the best way possible. But for sure after the World Cup many things will change."

Exoduses after major international tournaments are common as teams reset or rebuild, but given what Messi and Ronaldo have represented on the pitch and the fact they've appeared at each of the previous four World Cups, their appearances at Qatar 2022 need to be savoured.

It all begins with Friday's draw, when narratives and talking points that'll live longer than any of us will start to take shape with the unscrewing of a few shiny plastic balls.

Despite making history in Argentina's 1-1 draw against Ecuador, manager Lionel Scaloni seemed disappointed to share the points away from home.

It looked like it was going to be a win and a clean sheet for the visiting side after Julian Alvarez put them up in the first half, before late drama.

VAR ruled that a 90th-minute header struck the arm of an Argentinian defender, and Enner Valencia stepped up from the penalty spot and put home the rebound after his initial strike was saved.

With the result, Argentina have now played 31 games since their last loss, dating back to the 2019 Copa America semi-final, which is the longest active unbeaten run in international football.

Argentina's 31-game unbeaten streak also matched the record feat achieved by the national team from 1991 to 1993.

However Scaloni, who received a yellow card from the sideline, was focused on the difficulty of the World Cup qualifying campaign as a whole.

"These two dates [against Venezuela and Ecuador] were very hard for us," he told reporters.

"Between suspensions, injuries and players who arrived very fair, we had to support each other and I appreciate that very much. 

"They are very hard to play – sometimes people really don't realise how hard they are. I was just talking to the boys from the under-20s who came to watch the match, and they couldn't understand the degree of difficulty that the matches present.

"Today's game was played on a field that was not in good condition – it was almost impossible to play from below – even so, we had a good first half, but in the second they came to us."

It was a different story for Ecuador manager Gustavo Alfaro, who addressed the crowd and called it "one of the happiest moments of my life".

"I thank my family, everyone who was part of this process and this achievement, which is the most important in my career," he said.

"I am living one of the happiest moments of my life. Nobody believed in Ecuador, and today it stands up and says present to the world.

"The challenge that is coming to us [the World Cup] is for 17 million people."

Julian Alvarez's first-half strike was all that separated Argentina from home side Ecuador until a stoppage-time penalty secured a 1-1 draw.

With both sides already punching their tickets to the Qatar World Cup, this fixture was more about national pride, and it was evident neither team was going to take it easy as a number of the biggest stars were included in starting line-ups, including Lionel Messi.

Playing in front of a raucous home crowd, Ecuador defended with fiery passion, which was rewarded in the 93rd minute.

Enner Valencia tucked home a rebound after seeing a penalty awarded by VAR saved, cancelling out Alvarez's 24th-minute opener.

Ecuador almost had a dream start in front of their home fans, with Robert Arboleda's header from a fifth-minute set-piece tipped over the bar by Geronimo Rulli, who then denied Alan Franco.

Argentina had over 60 per cent of possession in the first half and, after their dominance was mitigated by sloppy mistakes early, the pressure paid off when Alvarez broke the deadlock.

Alvarez's goal came after a cross in from the left wing found him at the penalty spot, and though his first-time shot was blocked by a lunging defender, he tucked away the rebound neatly, hard and low across the goalkeeper into the bottom left corner.

Angel Mena fired wide from the edge of the box at the end of a surging run and it looked as if Argentina, who went close with a Messi free-kick would leave victorious until an on-target header struck Lucas Martinez on the arm, with VAR awarding a penalty.

Valencia's initial attempt was saved by Rulli, but the rebound fell fortuitously at his feet for him to tap in the equaliser.

What does it mean?

Both teams have secured qualification to the World Cup, but Argentina managing to again avoid defeat means they are now 31 games unbeaten, a run that stretches back to the 2019 Copa America semi-fiinals.

Immovable Otamendi controls the show

Argentina centre-back Nicolas Otamendi was near-flawless marshalling his defensive unit and was at no fault for the goal.

Otamendi won four out of his five aerial duels – two more than any other team-mate – and won six of his eight total duels.

Speedy Gonzalez runs straight to the bench

Nicolas Gonzalez started on the left wing for Argentina, but was largely ineffective before being substituted in the 78th minute.

Gonzalez was credited with zero created chances, and only had a passing accuracy of 44 per cent in the final third.

What's next?

Argentina face reigning European champions Italy on June 1. Ecuador can start to think about preparations for their first World Cup finals appearance since 2014.

Ecuador qualified for the 2022 World Cup on Thursday despite a 3-1 defeat to Paraguay, benefiting from a victory for Uruguay that also sent the two-time champions to Qatar.

La Tri, who failed to make Russia 2018, knew they needed only a point to be sure of a top-four finish with a game to spare.

However, already-eliminated Paraguay were clinical in Ciudad del Este, three up before the hour mark through Robert Morales, a Piero Hincapie own goal and Miguel Almiron.

Ecuador threatened a dramatic fightback as Jordy Caicedo scored a late penalty and Blas Riveros was sent off, but ultimately their fate was decided in Montevideo.

The third-placed side joined Uruguay in advancing with both teams on 25 points, four ahead of fifth-placed Peru, who went down 1-0 to Giorgian De Arrascaeta's goal late in the first half.

Peru are still in control of their play-off fate, although both Colombia and Chile can catch them as Paraguay attempt to again play the role of spoilers in Tuesday's final match in Lima.

Will it be Mohamed Salah or Sadio Mane? Italy or Portugal – or indeed neither? Can Canada end their long wait, and are the United States and Australia at risk of missing out?

Those questions and plenty more are set to be answered over the next week or so as World Cup qualifying concludes for many nations.

Just 15 of the 32 participants have so far been confirmed for Qatar 2022, leaving 48 teams battling for the 17 remaining spots.

Fourteen more countries will be assured of a finals berth come the end of next week in what is very much crunch time for those still in contention.

Stats Perform looks at the key talking points.

Egypt seeking revenge in AFCON final repeat

Less than two months on from meeting in the Africa Cup of Nations final, Egypt and Senegal face off over two legs for a place in Qatar.

Senegal prevailed in a penalty shoot-out to claim their first AFCON crown and, buoyed by that triumph, will consider themselves as favourites here.

While both teams boast an array of top-class talent, this fixture is being billed as a showdown between Liverpool team-mates Salah and Mane.

The two biggest stars in African football, only one of the pair will be part of the World Cup later this year – and neither will fancy watching it all unfold from home.

This is not the only grudge match taking place in the CAF section over the next week and a half, as fierce rivals Ghana and Nigeria will also face off in a two-legged play-off.

Cameroon are up against Algeria, Mali take on Tunisia and DR Congo meet Morocco in the other three ties, each of which will be concluded on March 29.

European heavyweights on collision course

Since the play-off draw in the UEFA section took place in November, all talk has centered around a potential meeting between Italy and Portugal for a place in the finals.

The winners of the past two European Championships, either the Azzurri or the Selecao will miss out on the biggest tournament of them all.

It should never have been this way, of course, as both teams were strong favourites to finish top of their groups and qualify automatically.

Italy finished second to Switzerland and Portugal were runners-up to Serbia, meaning the sides must now come through two qualifying ties.

First up for the reigning European champions is a meeting with North Macedonia in Palermo, while Portugal face Turkey in Porto, with the winners of both ties advancing.

Should, as expected, Italy and Portugal come through those semi-finals, the latter will have the advantage of staging the final on home soil five days later.

For Portugal skipper Cristiano Ronaldo, it presents what will surely be his last chance to play at a record-equalling fifth World Cup.

 

Pathways impacted by political events

Path C of UEFA qualifying is undoubtedly the most eye-catching, but there are also some tasty fixtures in the other two sections – not least a possible Home Nations derby.

Scotland and Wales were kept apart in the Path B semi-finals but could meet in the final should they overcome Ukraine and Austria respectively.

However, due to ongoing events in Ukraine, their game against Scotland has been pushed back – likely until June – as has the final involving either Wales or Austria.

In Path C, Russia had been due to face Poland, but the invasion of Ukraine forced FIFA and UEFA's hand and they have been banned from competing.

Poland have therefore been handed a bye to the qualifying play-off final, where either Sweden or the Czech Republic await. That match will be contested next week as planned.

Canada on verge of ending long wait, USA with work to do

The United States qualified for every World Cup between 1990 and 2014, but they missed out on a place at Russia 2018 after an embarrassing loss to Trinidad and Tobago.

Gregg Berhalter's side are by no means assured of one of the three automatic qualification spots in the CONCACAF section this time around, either.

USA sit second with three games to go, but they still have to travel to third-placed Mexico, as well as facing Panama and Costa Rica, who occupy fourth and fifth respectively.

Level on points with Mexico and four ahead of Costa Rica, it could be a tense finale to qualifying for the Stars and Stripes.

That should not be the case for Canada, who are eight points clear of fourth and are all but assured of ending their 36-year wait to make a second World Cup finals appearance.

Brazil and Argentina through, but who will join them?

The drawn-out South American qualifiers are nearing their conclusion and only four of the 10 sides know their fate at this juncture.

It has been plain sailing for Brazil and Argentina, who are assured of an automatic qualifying spot with three games to go, including a rescheduled meeting between the pair.

Behind those perennial World Cup representatives are Ecuador, who have been the surprise package in qualifying and can finish no lower than fifth.

Ecuador will not be content with anything other than a top-four finish, though, and they can make certain of that with victory over Paraguay.

Assuming Ecuador get over the line, that will leave Uruguay, Peru, Chile, Colombia and Bolivia battling it out for progression, which sets up some intriguing fixtures.

Uruguay occupy fourth place, meaning their qualifying aspirations are in their own hands, but they have Peru and Chile – the two sides behind them – still to face.

Socceroos sweating on finals spot

Only four teams advance automatically from the CONMEBOL section, with the team in fifth entering a play-off against the winner of the AFC fourth round in a one-off tie in June.

That may well turn out to be Australia as the Socceroos are five and four points behind top two Saudi Arabia and Japan in Group B with two games to go.

However, those remaining two fixtures are against those nations occupying automatic qualification places, so Australia may yet sneak through.

Iran and South Korea have already made certain of progression in Group A, meanwhile, leaving the United Arab Emirates, Lebanon and Iraq to compete for third place.

The two third-placed finishers – which, as it stands, are Australia and the UAE – will meet in a one-legged match ahead of that aforementioned play-off with a CONMEBOL side.

Brazil head coach Tite has criticized the decision to appoint a Colombian referee for Thursday's chaotic 1-1 World Cup qualifying draw with Ecuador.

Colombian referee Wilmar Roldan handed out four red cards throughout the game, including two to Brazilian goalkeeper Alisson which were both rescinded by the VAR, along with two overturned penalty awards for Ecuador.

Trailing 1-0 to Casemiro's first-half strike, Ecuador had a 55th-minute penalty awarded by Roldan overturned when it was determined Pervis Estupinan had dived in the box as opposed to being fouled by Raphinha.

In stoppage-time, the hosts again thought they had a penalty which could have led to the winner after a foul from Alisson but the award was overturned by the VAR, offering the Liverpool goalkeeper and Brazil a late reprieve.

Tite was critical of Roldan's "impulsiveness" but also the decision to appoint a referee from Colombia, who came into this matchday fourth in CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying behind Ecuador.

“Today there was no point in appointing a referee from the fourth country in the table, when the third and first were playing," Tite said at the post-game news conference.

"Roldan is a good referee, but it gives for interpretations. The designation took a bit of sensitivity."

Tite added: "It was a difficult game. The number of fouls was exaggerated, 20 fouls by Ecuador and 12 by us.

"The circumstances happened, it wasn't evil, it was impulsive. Incorrect, yes. And it needs to be corrected, yes. It needs to be mature, yes. But it wasn't evil."

Alisson was given a stoppage-time VAR reprieve after conceding a penalty as Brazil somehow clung on to a 1-1 draw against Ecuador in a chaotic World Cup qualifying classic.

Felix Torres equalised with 15 minutes to go and Ecuador looked set to grab the win that would put them on the brink of qualification when awarded a last-gasp penalty, but that opportunity was taken away in an ending that befitted the remarkable 90 minutes that preceded it.

The first half saw the red card brandished three times – the first two, for Ecuador goalkeeper Alexander Dominguez and Brazil right-back Emerson Royal, were decisions that remained, but Alisson's was overturned.

All the controversy somewhat overshadowed Casemiro's early goal, which looked likely to be the winner given Ecuador had a goal wiped out and a penalty decision reversed soon after the restart, before Torres headed in.

Alisson was then sent off again, but for the second time his dismissal was overturned and Ecuador were denied their late spot-kick.

Mexico's preparations for next month's crunch World Cup qualifier against the United States have been dealt a blow after a 3-2 defeat to Ecuador in an international friendly in Charlotte.

Walter Chala, making his second international appearance, scored the 75th-minute winner two minutes after coming off the bench for an under-strength Ecuador.

Both sides were missing several key Europe-based players, although that did not detract from an entertaining encounter, where three goals were scored in the opening quarter of an hour.

Jhonny Quinonez opened the scoring in the second minute when his scuffed bouncing effort beat Mexico goalkeeper Jonathan Orozco.

Mexico levelled four minutes when a fallen Santiago Gimenez, who had his initial effort blocked, flicked a ball across goal for Roberto Alvarado to tap home.

Ecuador restored their advantage when Washington Corozo worked a neat one-two with Toluca forward Michael Estrada, before bundling a shot past Orozco.

Mexico equalised again on the hour when Osvaldo Rodriguez rifled in a stunning left-foot strike from outside the box after Fernando Beltran's shot had been parried away.

Ecuador found the winner from a throw-in as debutant Djorkaeff Reasco flicked the ball back from the byline, allowing Chala to ghost in at the back post and finish with ease.

Lionel Messi's long wait for major international honours with Argentina is finally over after playing a starring role in their Copa America triumph, winning the Player of the Tournament prize before the final was even played.

In the age-old – and some might say tiresome – 'greatest of all time' debate, the stick usually used to beat Messi with revolved around his lack of titles with Argentina, but that is no longer relevant and he also played a vital role for La Albiceleste.

It was also an important barrier that Argentina broke down as a team, winning their first major international title since 1993.

Messi's performances see him lead Stats Perform's Opta data-driven Team of the Tournament, and he is joined by some familiar names as well as those who enjoyed breakthroughs over the past month.

 

Goalkeeper – Emiliano Martinez (Argentina)

Aston Villa keeper Martinez has enjoyed a remarkable 18 months or so and it's fair to say his form at the Copa America has helped truly cement his place as Argentina's first choice between the posts. His personality proved vital in the penalty shoot-out win over Colombia in the semi-finals as he psyched out Yerry Mina, but he also showed his excellence by finishing with an 85.7 per cent save ratio that was the second best in the tournament, while his four clean sheets was the best tally.

 

Right-back – Juan Cuadrado (Colombia)

Cuadrado can always be relied upon to provide some attacking impetus on the right flank and he certainly didn't disappoint in the Copa, his 18 chances created being the most for Colombia and among the top five of all players. The same could be said of his 22 open-play crosses, while Cuadrado also made 45 recoveries, the second most in Los Cafeteros' squad, highlighting how he was often in the right place to sweep up danger as well.

 

Centre-back – Marquinhos (Brazil)

While Brazil ultimately fell short at the Maracana on Saturday, Marquinhos can leave the tournament with his head held high. His ability to bring the ball out from the back was routinely notable, as highlighted by the fact his 110 carries was bettered by only four players, all of whom are forwards, but he was also a commanding presence at the back, with his 2.8 aerial the most among Brazil players.

Centre-back – Piero Hincapie (Ecuador)

Still only 19, Hincapie showed real promise here. Granted, there were signs that he remains quite raw and naive, as demonstrated by some of his struggles against Argentina in the quarter-finals when he was sent off late on for tugging back Angel Di Maria. Nevertheless, the Lazio-linked talent averaged the most passes per game for Ecuador (52.2) and showed real positivity when in possession, carrying the ball 600.7 metres upfield over the course of the tournament, at least 44m more than any other centre-back.

Left-back – Pervis Estupinan (Ecuador)

Estupinan endured a somewhat underwhelming first season with Villarreal in 2020-21, but in the Copa he showed glimpses of the player that had impressed so regularly with Osasuna the season before. He was consistently a useful outlet on the left and his eagerness to create saw him average more crosses per 90 minutes (9.6) than any other player in the tournament, while his 2.4 key passes each game was the most of all defenders.

Central midfield – Wilmar Barrios (Colombia)

The all-action midfielder performed an important function as Colombia ultimately finished third in the Copa. Barrios was tidy in possession as he looked to keep Reinaldo Rueda's men ticking, completing 88 per cent of his passes, but he was also effective at regaining possession and recovering the ball as he started 76 open play sequences, which only Yoshimar Yotun and Casemiro could better.

Central midfield – Rodrigo De Paul (Argentina)

Get ready to hear a bit more about De Paul over the next few years. While he's by no means an unknown given he's had a strong few years with Udinese, the midfielder is set to join Atletico Madrid and offers the blend of off-the-ball nous and technical ability that should see him thrive under Diego Simeone. His 32 ball recoveries led the way for Argentina while his six key passes was second only to Lionel Messi, with one of those being the glorious long-range pass to release Di Maria for the crucial goal in the final.

Right wing – Lionel Messi (Argentina)

While he may have fluffed his lines at the end of the final, Messi's exploits throughout the tournament previously meant he could be forgiven for that. After all, without his unbeaten four goals and five assists – a high for the tournament – Argentina almost certainly wouldn't have reached the showpiece. He remains one goal behind Pele's record (77) for CONMEBOL nations, but he finally has his first trophy with Argentina, and that's what matters most.

 

Attacking midfield – Neymar (Brazil)

Neymar had a peculiar tournament in some ways. No one would suggest he was poor, because he was routinely the player that provided the spark for Brazil, as evidenced by his tournament-leading 3.5 key passes and 21.6 passes into the final third each game (among players with more than one match played), but he was also wasteful in front of goal, his one non-penalty goal from 5.3 xG giving him the worst xG under-performance (4.3) at the tournament.

 

Left wing – Luis Diaz (Colombia)

Porto's Diaz is an exciting player and showed as much for Colombia as they claimed bronze. He scored more non-penalty goals (four) than any other player and produced some spectacular finishes, such as his remarkable bicycle-kick against Brazil and 30-yard screamer to seal victory in the third-place play-off against Peru. His four goals came from just 10 shots, with that 40 per cent conversion the best among those with three or more goals.

 

Striker – Lautaro Martinez (Argentina)

Despite the presence of Sergio Aguero, Martinez was the man generally chosen to lead the line at the Copa and he did fairly well as he netted three goals, with only Messi and Diaz getting more. While he was guilty of wastefulness at times, his three-goal haul was actually pretty close to his 3.3 xG, showing that for the most part he was dependable. Similarly, only two players averaged more shots on target per 90 minutes (players with more than one match played) than his 1.4. He also improved on his two goals from the 2019 edition, so he's seemingly going in the right direction.

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