Buenos Aires: Argentina threw away a two-goal lead in a disappointing 2-2 home draw against Chile as the South American qualifying for the 2006 World Cup kicked off on Saturday.
In the day’s two other games, Peru came from behind to hammer Paraguay 4-1 and Ecuador started with a 2-0 home win over Venezuela as the marathon battle for four automatic berths began nearly three years before the final is due to be played.
Argentina, in particular coach Marcelo Bielsa and midfielder Juan Sebastian Veron, have yet to win back the confidence of the public after the team’s spectacular failure in Japan and South Korea where they had arrived last year as favourites only to crash out in the first round.
Veron was booed every time he touched the ball, although the new Chelsea signing had a good match in midfield and was gradually winning the supporters over before he was surprisingly substituted by Matias Almeyda midway through the second half.
Chile, missing Italian-based midfielder David Pizarro and striker Marcelo Salas through injury, appeared tailor-made for the occasion.
Argentina had won their last five matches against their neighbours from across the Andes and have not lost to them for 30 years.
Cristian ‘Kily’ Gonzalez and Pablo Aimar scored twice in four minutes to give Argentina a 2-0 first-half lead but Chile stunned the River Plate stadium when Milovan Mirosevic and Reinaldo Navia scored in the second half.
A bad-tempered ending saw Argentina’s Walter Samuel and Chile’s Cristian Alvarez sent off for fighting while Navia was also dismissed for a tackle from behind.
Chile’s next game is on Tuesday at home to Peru, who got off to the perfect start against Paraguay.
Paraguay, who reached the last 16 at the last two World Cups, went ahead when Carlos Gamarra headed in Francisco Arce’s outswinging corner as two of the team’s stalwarts combined.
But the rest of the match suggested that Paraguay were a team past their prime.
Newcastle United midfielder Nolberto Solano headed Peru level after 34 minutes and eight minutes later set up the second for Club Bruges striker Andres Mendoza with a 60-metre pass out of defence.
Peru soaked up Paraguay pressure for most of the second half then struck with two more goals in the last ten minutes from locally-based Jorge Soto and Jefferson Farfan.
In Quito, already enjoying the advantage of playing at 2,800 metres above sea level, Ecuador were gifted an early goal by Venezuela, the only members of the South American Football Confederation who have never played at the World Cup.
The visiting defence stood and watched as Giovanni Espinoza nipped in to put Ecuador ahead after five minutes after a free-kick was floated in from the left.
Carlos Tenorio headed home the second in the second half.
Ecuador visit defending champions Brazil, who begin their campaign in Colombia, on Wednesday with coach Hernan Dario Gomez in confident mood. “We’re going to try and win,” he said. “Brazil is a great team but I have a great team as well. Ecuador can produce surprises.”