With Argentina qualifying automatically as holders, the other 9 countries were divided into three groups with the winners going through to the finals in Spain.
GROUP ONE: Bolivia, Brazil, Venezuela
GROUP TWO: Colombia, Peru, Uruguay
GROUP THREE: Chile, Ecuador, Paraguay
Bolivia, Brazil and Venezuela
The matches in this group were played between February and March 1981. Venezuela were the hosts for the first game of the group as Brazil were the visitors to Caracas. No goals going into the final 10 minutes when Brazil earned a penalty. A scramble in the box saw Serginho’s shot saved by one of the Venezuelan defenders and the referee had no hesitation in awarding a penalty. Zico stepped up and scored to give Brazil a 1-0 win.
A week later, Venezuela travelled to La Paz to play Bolivia. Goals from Aragones, Aguilar and Reynardo gave Bolivia a comfortable 3-0 win, and put paid to any hopes Venezuela had of qualifying. Brazil then visited La Paz, and took an early lead when Eder’s cross from the left wing was turned in at the far post by Socrates, after just 6 minutes. But midway through the first half Bolivia had a corner on the right and Brazilian keeper, Waldir, completely misjudged it and Carlos Aragones had the simple task of heading the ball in for the equaliser. Then on the hour-mark a swift attack saw Reinaldo strike from about 25 yards out and that proved the winner for Brazil. They later had Cerezo sent-off, but still managed to hold onto the win.
Venezuela then beat Bolivia for a rare win for them, and this meant Bolivia would now have to win in the Maracana and hope Venezuela could do the same, otherwise Brazil would stroll through to the finals. When Bolivia arrived in Rio, they gave Brazil a penalty after 20 minutes when a through ball from Junior found Reinaldo unmarked in the box and for some inexplicable reason, the Bolivian keeper, Jimenez, came charging out and completely wiped the striker out. Zico then coolly converted the penalty. In the second half, Reinaldo’s shot came back off the bar and Zico was there to score his 2nd of the night. Bolivia actually came back into it when Junior brought down the right-back, Trigo, in the area and Carlos Aragones converted the penalty to make it 1-2. Then with 5 minutes remaining, Brazil had a free-kick on the edge of the ‘D’ and Zico curled it over the wall and past Jimenez to complete his hat-trick. That 3-1 win secured qualification for the Brazilians.
A week later they welcomed the Venezuelans to Goiania. After 30 minutes, a free-kick on the right from Getulio was headed in by Flamengo striker, Tita to give Brazil the lead. 10 minutes into the second half, Junior took a free-kick on the left near the touchline. His ball floated into the area was headed in by Socrates. 2 minutes later Getulio crossed from the right and Tita got up and powered a header towards goal. It was saved on the line where Zico then tried to score from the rebound and his shot was also blocked on the line, before Tita eventually knocked in that rebound. Then in the 72nd minute, Ze Sergio’s run down the left wing came to an end when he was tripped in the area and Zico, also a Flamengo player, again scored from the spot to make it 4-0. With just 6 minutes to go, the third Flamengo player in the team, Junior, made a trademark run from the back and Zico found him, sending him clear to easily beat the keeper and Brazil had rounded off a perfect campaign with a 5-0 win.
Colombia, Peru, Uruguay
This group completed its games between end of July and mid-September 1981. Peru would be considered the favourites after their performances in Argentina 1978, yet they were on a run of no win in their last 10 internationals. First up was a meeting between Colombia and Peru in Bogota. Peru had a great chance to take the lead in the first half when they were awarded a penalty, but Cubillas saw his shot saved by the Colombian keeper. In the 64th minute Peru failed to properly clear a corner and Herrera’s shot from the edge of the area gave Colombia the lead. They looked like they were going to hang on but then Guillermo La Rosa rose above the defence to head home the equaliser 4 minutes from time. 1-1 was the result and proved this group was going to be tight.
Two weeks later Colombia travelled to Montevideo to take on Uruguay. Uruguay hadn’t lost at home since West Germany beat them 1-2 in June 1977. Ruben Paz put them ahead after 20 minutes, only for Sarmiento to equalise just before half-time. Herrera then put Colombia in front on the hour and looked as if they were going to pull off a shock. But with 10 minutes to go, Julio Morales brought the home side level and then with just 2 minutes to go, he converted a penalty to give Uruguay a dramatic 3-2 win.
Colombia then travelled to Lima knowing anything other than a win would ruin their chances of going through. Peru took a 5th minute lead when Barbadillo headed a cross in at the far post. Then in the second half, Uribe converted a penalty and Peru won 2-0. That was Colombia out and so the double-header between Peru and Uruguay would decide the winner of the group. Their first meeting was in Montevideo. Peru had the better of the first half and with 6 minutes of the first period left, went in front when La Rosa fired them in front.
Two minutes into the second half a great run from Velasquez took out most of the defence, and when he let in Uribe, the Peruvian fired the visitors into a 2-0 lead. Victorino got a goal back for the home side but Peru pulled off a crucial and important 2-1 win to put them in pole position in the group. In September the two met again, in Lima. Uruguay needed to win but just couldn’t break down the home side and the game ended 0-0 to put Peru through. Colombia and Uruguay then played out a 1-1 which was academic.
Chile, Ecuador, Paraguay
Group Three played their matches from late May to late June 1981. Ecuador took on Paraguay in Guayaquil. Klinger scored the only goal of the game and Ecuador won 1-0. A week later at the same venue Ecuador and Chile played out a 0-0 draw. Ecuador then travelled to Asuncion for the return fixture with Paraguay. A win would see them very close to their first ever appearance in the finals. After a goalless first half, Paraguay scored 3 times in the second half through Anoli, Morel and Romero. Ecuador pulled one back but Paraguay’s 3-1 win gave them renewed hope. If Paraguay could beat Chile they’d really open the group up. But in Asuncion a goal from Yanez on the counter-attack with 20 minutes to go, gave Chile a vital 1-0 win. Chile and Ecuador both had 3pts with Paraguay on 2pts. In Santiago, Chile met Ecuador. If the Chileans could win they’d win the group, but even a defeat would still give them a chance as they had a game to go. Goals in each half from Rivas and Caszely gave Chile a 2-0 win, and had won the group. Then a week later Chile confirmed their group win with a comprehensive 3-0 win at home to Paraguay.