Italy and Portugal found themselves in the same World Cup qualifying group on Friday, ensuring that the reigning European champion (Italy) or one of football’s biggest stars (Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal) will be absent from next year’s tournament in Qatar.
Italy face North Macedonia at home in the semi-finals in March, and the winner will travel to face the winner of the group’s other semi-final – Portugal or Turkey – for one of the bottom three places. European World Cup. The winner Portugal-Turkey would organize this match five days later.
The potential for such a high-stakes showdown also raised the possibility that Italy would miss the World Cup for the second consecutive cycle. Italy lost a place in the playoffs for the last World Cup, in Russia in 2018 – a loss which one newspaper called a “national disgrace”.
“It could have been a little better, for sure,” Italy coach Roberto Mancini told Italian TV channel RAI2 after Friday’s qualifying draw. “As we would have gladly avoided them,” he added, “probably they too would have avoided us.”
The possible showdown was the most intriguing of several high-stakes showdowns for Europe’s bottom three places in Qatar, and the first test of a new qualifying format. In the past, the European playoffs have taken the form of two-legged clashes.
Instead, this year the 12 teams – 10 of which finished second in their qualifying groups – were split into three four-team routes, each with their own semi-finals and finals. Only the winning team from each route qualifies for the World Cup.
In the other installments, Scotland will face Ukraine, with the winner meeting either Wales or Austria, and Russia will host Poland for the right to face Sweden or the Czech Republic.
Wales, which made their only World Cup appearance in 1958, were placed in the same category as Scotland, who have not qualified since 1998.
Ten European teams, led by Germany, France, Belgium and England, have already qualified, as have the two South American favorites, Brazil and Argentina.
Friday’s draw has also been set up second chance routes to the World Cup for the countries of four other regional confederations. In those matches, the fourth-place Concacaf team, the region comprising North America, Central America and the Caribbean, would face the Oceania champion, and the fifth-place South America team would face the Asian team fifth.
These matches will be played in one-way matches in Qatar on June 13-14 – more than two months after the World Cup draw sorted the field of 32 teams on April 1.